When viewers of Acute Misfortune first catch sight of Daniel Henshall playing artist maudit, Adam Cullen, they may experience a flash of déjà vu. The quiet, menacing tones of John Bunting, mastermind of the Snowtown serial murders, are back on air. Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011) is a movie I have no desire to watch again, but it remains one of the outstanding Australian films of the past decade. A large part of that movie’s success was Henshall’s chilling performance as Bunting, a suburban Svengali who drew vulnerable people into his own violent schemes.
In his directorial debut, actor Thomas W. Wright has taken a leaf out of Kurzel’s playbook. In this low-key, grainy bio-pic, Henshall plays Adam Cullen in the same manner that he played Bunting. The significant difference is that the latter was supremely self-assured whereas Cullen is a mass of insecurities. He may begin confidently enough but as the story progresses the persona he has cultivated begins to look increasingly frayed around the edges.
In Snowtown we knew that Bunting’s sinister manner was that of a serial killer. In Acute Misfortune we are dealing with a fantasist – a poseur who loved to invent stories about himself that made him seem much more edgy than he was.
To be more precise we may be dealing with two poseurs, because this film is as much about Erik Jensen as it is about Adam Cullen. Toby Wallace plays Jensen as a young, cocksure journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, who mixes arrogance with deep-rooted anxieties. The book was an exercise in gonzo journalism but the movie is confessional, as we watch Jensen being systemically humilated and mistreated by Cullen, who has enlisted him as his biographer.
We all know Cullen’s paintings, those ugly, in-yer-face cartoons dashed off on backdrops of shocking pink or canary yellow. We’re familiar with his portrait of actor, David Wenham that won the 2000 Archibald Prize, but the artist’s greatest creation was “Adam Cullen” the provocative artist who was mad, bad and dangerous to know. We see his will to self-creation in the pithy little aphorisms he fires off at Jensen: “That’s what art is. It’s pain relief. It’s palliative care.”
I was never attracted by the paintings, and repelled by the self-mythologising, but there are plenty of people who found it fascinating.
Erik Jensen, for instance. When the subject of your biography shoots you with a shotgun and deliberately tips you off the back of a motorbike, few biographers would presevere. Indeed, one look at Cullen’s flthy abode in the Blue Mountains would be enough to induce most of us to turn tail, let alone bunk down on a mattress in the spare room, but Jensen seems to have taken a masochistic pleasure in suffering these indignities. It was great material for a book.
One imagines this movie, ideally, as a portrait of a flawed, tortured artist, whose talent was indivisible from his appalling behaviour. His biographer would be a promising young writer drawn to the dark side. In the painful process of gathering information the writer would gradually learn the truth about the artist, and begin to understand himself in the process. We’re talking about a modern Bildungsroman – a story that charts the growth to maturity of the lead character.
What we have instead is a tale in which we watch the artist getting progressively more creepy and self-destructive, and a writer struggling to make sense of his discoveries while coping with his own identity issues. Rather than a ‘coming of age’ the story leaves Jensen in an ambiguous state. He has been through a lot with Cullen and is determined to get something out of his ordeal – to exploit his exploiter.
As a book, Acute Misfortune was lurid and mythologising, portraying Cullen as an Aussie Rimbaud compelled to push experience to the limits with alcohol, guns and heroin. It was only towards the end, when faced with the prospect of going to gaol for drink driving and possessing unlicenced firearms, that the tough guy image turned to jelly. For all his criminal fantasies Cullen was terrified of prison.
He was just as duplicitous in his demeaning comments about a family in which he had been treated as a golden boy by loving, indulgent parents. His problem was not an abusive, dysfunctional upbringing but the lack of one. To complete the self-portrait he was creating he needed to craft stories about an evil, dirty past that never existed.
Jensen realised what a phoney Cullen was – note the pun: ‘a cute misfortune’ – but rather than dropping the project he made a calculated decision to shape this material into something that would appeal to a broad audience, like a true crime story. Acute Misfortune, the film, takes the process a step further as the author steps more boldly onto centre stage while the subject recedes. It’s Jensen, not Cullen, who is the hero of this bio pic, although neither character induces the slightest twinge of sympathy.
The greater emphasis on Jensen’s personal story induces us to see him as Cullen’s doppelganger. His arrogance and sense of entitlement echo Cullen’s more theatrical sense of self-importance. His fears and fantasies have the same self-mortifying aspect, although they stop short of his subject’s headlong plunge into the abyss. Jensen does not have a death wish. On the contrary, he sees a ready market for this romance of the gutter he is concocting.
Adam Cullen worked hard at creating a fiction of his life. Erik Jensen and Thomas W. Wright have completed the process, although it may not be the portrait Cullen would have liked. We see a childish personality who had enough charisma to make friends and acolytes, but anyone who got close enough would soon become acquainted with the selfish, sadistic side of his personality. Cullen doesn’t come across as a great artist or a great villain but a pitiful narcissist who succeeded in making a small splash in the tepid pond of Australian contemporary art. This movie will keep the waters in motion a little longer, but ultimately it’s a story in which there is too much pathology and too little art.
Directed by Thomas M. Wright
Written by Erik Jensen, Thomas M. Wright
Starring Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace, Gillian Jones, Genevieve Lemon, Max Cullen
Australia, rated MA 15+, 90 mins
Published in Artist Profile 47, May 2019