Sign up for the Film Comment Letter today to get original film writing delivered to your inbox every week! >>

Short Take: Lords of Chaos

(Jonas Åkerlund, UK/Sweden, Gunpowder & Sky, Opening February 8)

The work of Jonas Åkerlund has been seen as outrageous from the get-go, with the notoriety of his early music videos for The Prodigy and others. In Lords of Chaos, Åkerlund turns his eye to the insane true story of Norwegian death metal bands Mayhem and Burzum, whose playacting at nihilism and satanism eventually bled into actual murder and arson across Norway.

The marriage of director to material is ideal, given Åkerlund’s own membership in a Swedish death metal band as a youth and his decades of experience in the music world. Unsurprisingly, this gives the film fertile aesthetic grounding. There are reams of ink-black hair and mottled white face paint, double denim, knives plunging into wrists, and stage lights strobing as lead singer Dead (Jack Kilmer) tosses severed pigs’ heads to his audience. When Euronymous (Rory Culkin) becomes competitive with the posing, nervous Varg (Emory Cohen), danger is imminent.

As this gang of asshole teenagers thrash and headbang their way into a litany of gruesome behavior, Åkerlund regards them with both mild detachment and fully fleshed-out detail. Adolescent male cruelty and stupidity are at the black heart of this story of musical image-making gone awry; the result is death, church-burning, and gleeful cat-torturing. That any of this actually happened is simultaneously disturbing and thoroughly believable. These financially comfortable and performatively troubled young men might be talented, but you can just as easily imagine them stalking an American high school with guns in their hands.