Lords of Chaos, a new biopic of the late founder of Norwegian death-metal, tells the story of a man who played the role of Satanist so well that he created an actual murderous death-cult, dying at the hands of a jealous disciple. He is the man who memed himself to death.
Øystein Aarseth was a guitarist who helped create the Norwegian death metal scene in the 1980s. He led the band Mayhem and publicly embraced Satan. He was murdered in 1993 by another musician, Varg Vikernes.
This is a story with extra resonance in our age of antisocial media, where every basement-dwelling troll can be a troll king. Alienated youths who tweet themselves into being gulag-defending "tankies," or "race realists" who have frog memes instead of friendships, might take Lords as a warning that someday people will take them seriously. You can see the poster tagline: He died as he lived — for the lulz.
But Lords of Chaos is weirder and better than that. Rory Culkin stars as Øystein Aarseth, who performed under the name "Euronymous": a blend of "anonymous" and the demon Eurynomos — though the "Euro" also unintentionally foreshadows the pagan neo-Nazism which would, if this is a thing that can happen, corrupt the Satanists. Culkin works his family's most unprepossessing features — those big bruised eyelids, that petty cupid's mouth — into a convincing portrayal of an accidental cult leader. He's just ugly enough that you buy his charisma.
Euronymous is in revolt against a Norwegian society and church that seem factory-designed to be unhateable. All these people wear cable-knit sweaters, for God's sake! At one point Euronymous attacks "the f--king Christians, oppressing us with their kindness and their goodness!" For the most part these Satanists are not rebelling against a society that has harmed them in any way. Several times, the characters note that they're being financed by their parents. Lords sees the humor here: Early on, Euronymous' little sister invades his practice room. First he yells for their mom, but then he chases the girl out, laughing: "I am the Beast! I am the Beast Incarnate!" It's adorable.
There is one character who has real reason to revolt. Per Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who called himself "Dead," is a self-harming singer who was bullied so severely in school that "he actually died for a moment." "Dead," with his sweet face, long blond hair, and gashed-up arms, floats through the film as a specter of sincerity. When he inflicts shocking violence on himself, he isn't trying to prove a point. But Lords doesn't allow the other characters the trauma that might prompt sympathy.
Nor does it restrict their crimes to those that might please an ideological viewer. The death-metal fans burn down churches, and kill a man in an anti-gay attack. This is a tough film to watch, filled with both self-destructive violence and the other kind. Corpses are touched, smelled, tasted — and not only animal corpses. Director Jonas Åkerlund handles this cruel and sad material with sensitivity. He lets you laugh at Euronymous' pretensions and his Mean Girls-style cruelties, and makes you recoil from the destruction and desecration the band promoted. But this is a film that expects you to see, in some joking-not-joking sense, its horrible protagonist's side.
And I did. My notes from an early, firelit concert scene read, in all caps, "THIS MUSIC [misspelled expletive] RIPS." Åkerlund was a drummer in an '80s metal band himself; though he used little black-metal music in Lords, relying on Icelandic art-rockers Sigur Rós, music is the most obvious entry point into the film's anti-everything ecstasy. Music has always provoked violence, especially the kind of communal violence that releases young men from the burden of the self. Individuality is tightly tied to morality: the nagging conscience, the ambivalence and self-justifications inherent in the constant choice of right or wrong. The moral life, without any outside force of correction, easily becomes a life of constantly reinforced certainties and judgments, constrained and resentful and unhumbled.
This is why it matters that, whatever the real problems of 1990s Norway, the Norwegian society of Lords of Chaos is so good. Euronymous was offered (in this fictional film) the best this world can do, and he rejected it. Partly this is willful evil. But there's also a hidden critique there, a recognition that no society, however moral and sincere and cable-knit, is ever really good.
We live in a moralistic age. It's a secular age, this-worldly in its demands for justice and its resistance to mercy. Everybody's woke right up until they reveal themselves as a garbage person. Lords never pretends that its characters' amorality was ever a good idea. But it knows that morality without ecstasy will always provoke bacchanal: the flight into the black night sublime.
For Christians this "dark night" is where we encounter the God who is love. But there are other creatures who move there in the dark. In many medieval paintings, demons were depicted as creatures made of mouths. Howling fang-rimmed holes formed their bellies, their groins. This obviously depicts our own insatiable gluttony and lust. But it also suggests that demons will consume you: your hopes, your friendships, your accomplishments; your art, your talent, your life; your longings, and especially those longings which might have led you to God.
In the film's final voiceover, Euronymous says, "There's nothing sad about my death or my life." After all, he created Norwegian death-metal. "What the f--k have you done lately, poser?" This from a character who openly admitted to posing! This from a character who by the end of his (fictional) life was trying to step away from the little earthly hell he'd created. It's outrageous, it's pathetic — but it's said with such conviction that I could feel the audience's rueful chuckle, the half-seduced squirm.
The postmortem address of the real Øystein Aarseth remains, of course, unknown. But that taunting voice — filled with delectation, dishonest and yet somehow persuasive, slick and cool and truthless — is a voice from the depths of Hell.