* * * 1/2
Rich, strange, smart and darkly off-centre – like its subject – Acute Misfortune is based on Erik Jensen’s book about the two or so years he spent researching Blue Mountains painter Adam Cullen for a proposed biography (the proposal coming from Cullen himself). Mostly but not entirely confined to Cullen’s spare, modest mountain house, and to the two main characters, the film examines Cullen’s troubled psyche with the detached observational eye the famously confrontational painter may have shown his subjects. Like a painter, director and co-writer (with Jensen himself) Thomas M. Wright produces a portrait that is somewhat oblique and extremely evocative; like Cullen himself, it is a portrait that brings out the subject’s darkest tones while not afraid of some bold, risk-taking strokes.
Daniel Henshall is magnetic and imposing as Cullen. Since he grabbed us all by the throat and forced us to reckon with his powerful talent as killer John Bunting in Snowtown (2011), Henshall has been in a lot of television, including having a major role in the long-running US series Turn, which is essentially unwatched in Australia. He deserves, and demands, the big screen, and it is thrilling to see him once more in such a dominant – indeed domineering – role. Indeed, it’s very, very much a role in kin with his Bunting; both were disturbed men who decided to aggressively, abusively “mentor” much younger men as some sort of outlet for their demons/diseases.
The reverberations with Snowtown are indicative of a film that is full of references, oblique and sometimes glaringly clear. Max Cullen plays his own cousin, Adam’s father Kevin Cullen; late in the film, Cullen asks Jensen a question that seems to be a direct quote from Snowtown. Since Cullen/Henshall is shown admiringly watching David Wenham in The Boys (1998) and seemingly basing his style of intimidatory rhetoric on Wenham’s character Brett Sprague, it’s entirely possible that filmmaker Wright is suggesting that Cullen also was a fan of Snowtown, and Henshall’s performance in it, ultimately meaning that Henshall is, to at least a degree, playing a character imitating his own performance as another character in another film.
If that’s too clever, or meta, for you, it’s totally in line with the philosophy of painters, who all “steal” from each other, reference each other, copy each other, honour each other and indeed simply paint in each other’s styles, all the time. As Cullen’s portraits captured their subjects with reference to his own dark drama, so too does Wright’s film ensnare a version of Cullen, while also obsessively presenting itself as its own artwork, endlessly reflecting and refracting the art of others.