Lords of Chaos (2019)

“Based on truth, lies, and what actually happened,” Lords of Chaos is a half-fictionalized profile of the infamous Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, joining the ranks of other aggressively subjective, post-modern biopics like GoodFellas; Love & Mercy; Elvis & Nixon; and I, Tonya. Directed by a former black metal musician (Swedish music video auteur Jonas Åkerlund, formerly of Bathory) and based on an eponymous book detailing the real-life events it depicts, Lords of Chaos should carry an air of authenticity to its true-crime recollection of Mayhem’s rise-to-power and spectacular downfall. Instead, it takes great liberties in its selective memory and revisionist history for the sake of making a larger point about the type of shithead metal nerds it’s lampooning, whether or not they resemble the real-life people whose names are attached. In particular, Lords of Chaos is a little too forgiving to Mayhem “mastermind” Euronymous, the POV protagonist played increasingly humanely by Rory Culkin. It’s also guilty of going light on the Nazi rhetoric vocalist Burzum infused into black metal’s core philosophy, a grotesquely fascist self-contradiction in a movement supposedly built by anti-establishment subversives. Personally speaking, though, historical accuracy has never been something that’s prevented me from enjoying a movie as long as it has something true or interesting to say, which is the idea at the heart of the subjective, post-modern biopic. In this case, that truth comes in the form of a darkly funny true-crime satire about how hardline shithead metal nerds are mostly just trust fund kids with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. It zaps all the supposed Cool out of the church-burnings, murders, and animal cruelty of black metal lore to expose them as the edgelord posturing that they were. And as lightly as it treads on Euronymous’s own faults and the seriousness of the movement’s Nazism that Burzum helped foster, it’s very clear in condemning them for escalating that edgelord behavior by preaching hateful rhetoric for the sake of “fun” & self-promotion.

The genius of making a film about Mayhem in the first place, of course, is that the band’s “break-up” story involves a spectacularly violent murder that made worldwide headlines. On its surface, the film is a tragic true-crime dramedy about a Norwegian teen’s ascent from the suburbs to self-made heavy metal legend. In that regard, Lords of Chaos reads as a toothless, formulaic, immorally misguided canonization of an over-glorified troll – which is how most pro critics have assessed its merits. For me, Mayhem’s story itself is only a convenient, sensational platform the film exploits to stage its true intent: broad, brutally unforgiving satire of gatekeeping edgelord teens in the black metal scene & beyond. There isn’t much difference between the “dark, evil” trolls of this film and the brand-building influencers of Instagram today, especially considering how many of the online contingent’s stories end at horrific meltdowns like Fyre Fest, Japanese suicide forests, racist-slur controversies, and criminal indictments for fraud. They spout hateful, destructive rhetoric for the press it gets them as shock value peddlers to boost record sales, then are horrified to discover that their most dedicated fans actually take their word as unholy gospel. Satanism, Nazism, and advocation for murder are less their personal philosophy than they are an opportunity for angsty teens to piss off their loving, supportive parents. The black metal musicians of Lords of Chaos aren’t selling a new pop music subgenre so much as they’re selling a lifestyle brand. Their quest to define the difference between “true metalheads” & “posers” becomes increasingly, darkly hilarious as they’re all literally posing for pictures & press. The only zealot who takes the philosophy seriously (Burzum) ends up being the trigger for their tragic downfall, so they’re effectively destroyed by their own edgelord posturing & verbal bullshit. Lords of Chaos does for the 1990s black metal edgelord what the Tim Heidecker picture The Comedy did for the 2010s Brooklyn hipster: costuming itself as a fan & a participant only to tear the entire enterprise down from the inside.

It’s impossible to tell whether the affectation is sincere or satirical, but one of the more amusing impulses Lords of Chaos pursues is in disguising itself as the kind of hyperviolent horror media its subjects would watch for entertainment. Their headbanging parties are shot with the fish-eye lenses & low-fi camcorder immediacy of 90s skateboarding videos & MTV footage. The pummeling blastbeats of their performances are illustrated with quick-edit montages that flash jump-scare horror imagery like a strobelit haunted house. In their spare time, the fascist trolls of Lords of Chaos watch gory splatter comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which the film itself matches in the intense practical gore of its own murder scenes. However, unlike in a Dead Alive, the real-life murders are not at all cartoonish or fun to watch. The camera uncomfortably lingers on the brutal displays, recounting each ugly stab & slice in grotesque misery. Similarly, the heavy metal party footage is comically undercut by the godawful sex, cheery suburban homelives, and image-conscious corpse paint posing that define these cruel nerds’ day-to-day, pathetic personae. Even the supposed badassery of their penchant for burning churches is soured by the churches in question being centuries-old structures of fine art majesty, not just provincial boxes with a steeple attached. Aesthetically speaking, Lords of Chaos matches the philosophical con-artistry of its subjects; it’s dressed up like “terror incarnate,” but just below that surface is something miserably, pathetically uncool. Whether that was the film’s intent is irrelevant at this point, but my personal reading of it as a satire leans to that bait & switch as being purposeful & weaponized.

As much as I appreciated Lords of Chaos as a post-truth biopic & an edgelord satire, I’m not at all shocked to see that most pro reviews of the film have been tepid at best. Spending two hours with these miserable, hateful shitheads is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, even though they are consistently the butt of a righteous joke. Whether or not Åkerlund could’ve been tougher on specific characters who were even worse shitheads in real life, I greatly enjoyed watching him give all gatekeeping black metal edgelords everywhere a collective noogie. It’s the exact fate these lowly nerds deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

Gabriel (2015)

fourstar

I have an unusual, all-consuming fascination with the modern fairy tale Electrick Children. For a somewhat quiet & unassuming indie drama, the film has burrowed its way deep into my unconscious and I find myself thinking about it & rewatching it far more often than I probably should. A lot of the film’s success is easily recognizable in the lead performances from actors Julia Garner & Rory Culkin and in the past week I’ve been able to see those talents continue to shine onscreen in two new features. Julia Garner was wonderful in the modestly enjoyable Lily Tomlin comedy Grandma & now I’ve seen Rory Culkin excel in the titular role of the much bleaker, much superior Gabriel.

Gabriel follows a very eventful 48 hours or so in the life of its titular protagonist, a mentally ill Rory Culkin on weekend leave from an institution. Supposed to be in the care of his nerve-wracked family, Gabriel hatches several escapes as a means to find & propose marriage to an old flame, Alice. When the movie begins, a medicated, sluggish, but quick to anger Gabriel is somewhat creepy in his attempts to hunt down Alice, especially in a scene where he’s fawning over precious objects in her vacant bedroom, huffing her bed smells like Michal Ealy in The Perfect Guy. Even in these scenes, where Gabriel might potentially be a dangerous creep, he’s our dangerous creep and it’s easy to identify with his foolhardy attempts to reach Alice & propose marriage. If, as Roger Ebert used to say, movies are a machine that generate empathy, Garbiel is a highly efficient machine, one that reveals more & more empathetic layers to a troubled, chemically imbalanced protagonist who is extremely confused & vulnerable because of a physiological malfunction beyond his control.

Rory Culkin is immensely impressive in his featured role as Gabriel. The movie asks a lot of him, playing a wide range of notes that include the desperation of a knife-wielding maniac to the helplessness of a sick kitten. As the troubled protagonist begins to duck his medication, Gabriel gradually escalates its agitated nervousness to match his mental state & Culkin is incredibly adept every step of the way. There are some visual & aural touches that help convey this secondhand anxiousness, like obsessive focus on the patterns of tree branches & fan blades as well as vocal repetition & a nerve racking use of violins. However, no matter how much the film accomplishes visually, there’s no mistake that this is Rory Culkin’s show, as he can elicit just as much of that effect from a nervous chewing of his fingernails or a seemingly simple statement like “I’m not Dad.” The heart of Gabriel is an all-too believable, oppressively bleak look at the frustration of living with a familial history of mental illness & the vulnerability of not being able to help someone you love suppress the malfunctions of their mind & body. Still, it’s Culkin’s performance that brings to life the film’s emotional weight. After being captivated by him here & in Electrick Children, I’m eager to watch every role he can land in the years to come, the same dedication I’m eager to award Julia Garner.

-Brandon Ledet