Acute Misfortune (2019)

Adam Cullen was a bit of a handful, it seems.

I mean, he was – he died in at 47 in 2012 – a wildly successful artist, who boasted that he’d managed to figure out how to game the system. He ripped the piss out of society and manliness, travelled the world and had a retrospective at the AGNSW while still alive.

He was also into drink, drugs, firearms and a bleak view of the world that’d make Thomas Ligotti seem like a beam of light.

So of course, I watched a movie about him.

I’d known of Cullen’s work before – I’d seen it in galleries, and was aware of his Archibald-winning take on David Wenham (Brett Sprague rather than Diver Dan) – but I hadn’t known of the intricacies of his life. I certainly hadn’t known that over a prolonged period of time, writer Erik Jensen became enmeshed in a friendship with the artist that birthed a fairly remarkable biography.

(I guess it’s classically described as “a volatile relationship” but that doesn’t really cover it when the relationship includes going on smack runs with (and being shot by) your subject.)

Anyway, my initial knowledge of the movie came through this excellent Kill Your Darlings article. (It’s paywalled, but worth it.) It was brutal on the film’s subject, and rightly so.

Cullen was, by his own description, a white, middle-class man from the northern beaches of Sydney. To anyone who has tried to make and present art, to catch curators’ attention, to own themselves and their confidence in a way that’s needed to claim a place for yourself in art’s institutional structures, Cullen’s demographic markers render him an insider who was primed for success. That he had a rancid personality only heightened his mystique, or what we would now call his ‘personal brand’. Perhaps that is Cullen’s nimblest achievement – that he accidentally internalised the same capacity for neoliberal self-branding that today’s young generations have perfected.

But then, it also had some great things to say about art, Australia and masculinity, including this king-hit.

Australia has no faith in art, especially contemporary art. That dismal reality is the real story here. No election has been fought over cultural policy – in fact, the country hasn’t even had a cultural policy since 2013. Acute Misfortune opens with an image of asphyxiating suburban conformity – rows and rows of triangular roofs. Cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking reconstruct an image of Australian normality and make it haunted, empty, latent with malice. To Australia’s suburbs, decorated with Ikea framed prints, there’s no story, no spark, no magic inherent in art – only in the personas and drama around the art. This nation is one built on a denial of culture, and the import of new ones.

BAM.

Of course, there was a trailer attached, and I was hooked. I was partially into it for the portraiture of this guy, who appears to be fucking terrible. But I was also into it because there were notes I recognised in there from other films that tackle Australian masculinity: that horrible loneliness, that emptiness at the core of things. Between the grim aesthetic, and Daniel Henshall’s guaranteed ability to terrify, I had to see it.

I don’t particularly want to spoil the narrative too much – you already know he dies, after all – but the film is great. It feels like a theatre piece spun into a film, and there’s always something a bit odd, a bit off about what you’re watching. The aspect ration is damn near 4:3 and it feels like some kind of home-video window into a destructive relationship, a personal record that we’re not meant to see. Trains move at a dreamlike pace, and the quiet is always hinting at violence to come, at eruption barely contained.

It’s a weird little film, and it got under my skin in the best way.

Though there are a number of strong supports in the film – especially Gillian Jones, Genevieve Lemon and Max Cullen (actual relation) – this film is essentially a two-hander. Its success comes only because Henshall and Wallace work so well in their roles. Henshall, particularly, is remarkable. As anyone who’s seen his serial-killing turn in Snowtown can attest, the air of malice that can be conveyed by the actor’s take on simple mateship moments is absolutely breathtaking.

This is not a film for everyone, any more than The Boys – which makes a pitch-perfect guest appearance here – is a wide-appeal film. Both are films which show the horror of the suburbs, and, more importantly, the wrecking ball effects of masculinity and insecurity. But the filmmakers succeed in providing a portrait which is impossible to ignore.

I loved it, and will absolutely buy a copy if it comes to physical media. It’s a compact film that aims to do a single thing – tell the story of an artist’s relationship with both a writer and the truth – and does it exceptionally well.

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