An engrossing house-of-mirrors study of controversial Australian grunge artist Adam Cullen and the journalist tasked with profiling him, “Acute Misfortune” adds up to a haunting, format-flouting portrait-within-a-portrait of the art-world enfant terrible, as seen through the eyes of writer Erik Jensen. Like a less meta, Down Under “Adaptation,” the movie finds greater interest in the particulars of Jensen’s assignment than it does in its putative subject, all but ignoring Cullen’s work in order to make room for his larger-than-life personality.
It’s an impressive feat for all involved — not just co-leads Daniel Henshall (as Cullen) and Toby Wallace, who are both terrific, but especially Aussie actor-turned-helmer Thomas M. Wright (“Top of the Lake”), making his directorial debut with a film that demonstrates a maturity clearly lacking in the two characters he examines. Wright presents Jensen’s mission as an updated “Heart of Darkness” of sorts: a tale of seduction, deception and gradual implosion in which a charismatic celebrity draws an impressionable young writer into his orbit, following along as Cullen sinks his claws into his biographer the way the jovial serial killer did his hapless film crew in Belgian mock doc “Man Bites Dog.”
In one scene, Cullen takes Jensen hunting with a pair of Catalan militia vets, shooting the kid in the leg in what hardly feels like an accident. In another, he shoves Jensen off the back of his motorbike as a kind of hazing ritual. And then there’s the moment when Jensen realizes the Thames & Hudson publishing contract, which had served as the pretext for the four years he spent observing Cullen, has been a ruse.
Jensen did wind up writing a book, published after the artist’s death at age 47, which provides the raw material for Wright’s movie (they share credit on the script). A pathological liar, Cullen may have been manipulating Jensen throughout, but in so doing, he revealed himself to the author as well, and those candid moments — the drug use, the violent outbursts, the brittle glimpses of vulnerability — supply additional dimensions, resulting in the cinematic equivalent of cubism.
Now, I’m not an art critic, and Cullen wasn’t a figure I was familiar with going in, but it’s easy to recognize the type: a sensationalist provocateur for whom public attention enabled his self-destructive tendencies. He surrounded himself with guns and drugs, hung out with unsavory types and channeled those influences into aggressive, unnerving work. Among film-industry examples, I’m reminded of Lars von Trier, whose creative genius comes inextricably entwined with depression, substance abuse and a reckless impulse to challenge social boundaries.
In Cullen’s case, he found easy notoriety with crude large-format paintings of nightmare-cartoonish creatures and criminals (Ned Kelly was a favorite subject, Mark “Chopper” Read a friend and Francis Bacon an influence). In 2000, Cullen won the Archibald, a prestigious national prize for portraiture awarded for a wild-eyed rendering of David Wenham that made the actor look like a latter-day Vincent van Gogh, ready to slice off his own ear. From then on, Cullen was “in” — an outsider embraced and elevated by Australia’s elite art establishment, which was titillated by his bad behavior.
Jensen was just 19 when he met Cullen, whom he’d been assigned to interview for a one-off cover story. More cocky than callow, the young writer enters Cullen’s studio as some reporters can, but I never have: seeing himself as an equal to the talent he’s been sent to observe. He doesn’t defer to Cullen or attempt to flatter the man’s ego, but holds his own against this alpha personality, who speaks in aphorisms intended for quotation. “There’s nothing new in history you can’t find in the suburbs,” he says, or “Just like what you do … It’s all theft.” When Cullen asks him to sit for a portrait, he obliges, riding home with a canvas under his arm.
The last shot of “Acute Misfortune” finally reveals that painting. Until then, the film focuses not on how Cullen sees Jensen, but the other way around — although there are scenes throughout in which Cullen is the one posing questions of his interviewer. Right from the start, the dynamic between the two men intrigues, escalating after Jensen’s story runs and the artist invites him back to write a book. In time, Wright reveals that the writer is gay, which gives context to some of Cullen’s more peculiar behavior, like barging into the bathroom after Jensen has showered or entering his room at night and hovering naked near his bed.
There’s a complex power game at play here, though that’s not the most fascinating aspect of the dynamic between them. More interesting is the way Jensen resists falling into Cullen’s traps, or those of promotional profile writing. The painter recognizes the opportunity to shape his own mythology, and Jensen dutifully records his thoughts and actions, but he never buys into the art community’s estimation of Cullen, and goes around him at several points to interview Cullen’s parents (his real-life uncle and artist Max Cullen plays his father) and a traumatized ex-girlfriend (who barely merits a mention in the book, and remains just an off-screen presence here).
Right there in the self-aware, Charlie Kaufman-esque prologue of “Acute Misfortune,” Jensen includes an email to an artist he was seeking to interview for the book: “All journalism involves the Sisyphean task of trying to understand other people and in this I have been dealt a boulder called Adam,” he writes. That uphill battle becomes the subject of the film, more than Cullen himself.
Tapping into the same dark energy he previously brought to “Snowtown,” Henshall ensures that the artist makes an impression on audiences as well, but the movie largely bypasses any evaluation of his oeuvre, sparking questions instead about the performance-art aspect behind his persona: Is it healthy, either for society or for a nonconformist like Cullen, to encourage individuals who wage open war on public norms and the notion of “good taste”? The contemporary art market celebrates figures who test our limits, and “Acute Misfortune” seeks to understand to what extent such bad-boy behavior can be a charade. Here, it clearly comes at a cost, though the movie withholds moral judgment, delivering a portrait as disconcerting as anything Cullen ever painted.