Acute Misfortune is a sharply assembled and compelling film which, nonetheless, sometimes struggles a little under the weight of its seriousness. This is particularly true for its soundtrack, full of groaning ululations, and the scenes where we follow our protagonist to a roaring ocean beneath an angry grey sky (because all Australian films about the intersection of masculinity, violence and art must have such a scene). The film is at its best when exploring the host-parasite relationship between subject and artist.
We first meet Erik Jensen (played by Toby Wallace with a clipped intensity) as a precocious and prodigiously gifted 19-year-old journalist, creating vivid, bitchy little stories about strangers on a train station platform for the amusement of his friends. We see him after an interview with a grieving mother, complaining about the trite cliches she gave him as quotes (“We’ll get page eight,” he huffs at his photographer), before he is sent to interview Archibald winner Adam Cullen (a staggering performance from Daniel Henshall) — charismatic, verbose and menacing, who paints him as they talk (“You’ll be the only fuckin’ 19-year-old with a Cullen on your wall”).
Cullen loves the resulting piece. “You get it,” he tells Jensen, and takes him on as a live-in biographer. It’s an intimate, volatile relationship, blurring the distinction between professional and personal until its a Turner brushstroke.
The point of view of Acute Misfortune shifts across the narrative — as it starts, we appear to be following Jensen, but end up seeing moments of Cullen that Jensen could not have. Thus, Acute Misfortune becomes a subjective account of a subjective account of an unreliable narrator. We never lose the sense that there’s an element of performance to these two, that they see their ultimate fate through the lens of representations elsewhere, whether through others’ work, or their own.
These degrees of separation, between people and stories and realities, are heightened throughout the film. We see Jensen glow green through Cullen’s night vision camcorder, we hear Cullen’s theories on art and life played back on Jensen’s tape. We see Cullen through Jensen’s limpid prose, and Jensen peers at us from Cullen’s bustling canvas.
They are diagonal lines crossing; Jensen on his way up, Cullen, in every conceivable sense, on his way down. Both self-medicate — Jensen drinks and Cullen does heroin. Both are fundamentally lonely, and give primacy to their work above all else.
For his part, Cullen (with his health and work beginning to falter) clearly sees Jensen (bursting with talent and curiosity and for all his cynicism) as naive, lonely and susceptible to Cullen’s mythology — as the person who will secure his legacy. Frequently, Cullen will preface an observation with “and this is a quote”, and rages at Jensen whenever he speaks to anyone else. As his involvement with Cullen curdles into abuse, and Jensen’s default look becomes that of someone recalling something traumatic, there’s seemingly never a question he would leave it behind, stop silently scribbling pages upon pages of notes in his impenetrable shorthand.
More than once during their toxic, tender waltz, Cullen literally draws blood from Jensen — he accident shoots him, and later deliberately pushing him from the back of a motorbike. Jensen winces, regards the wounds, and whatever his unexpressed tumult, keeps writing his book — which is itself named for Cullen’s explanation of a giant scar that “twists the length of his torso”. Perhaps you can’t take that much from something without it taking something back from you.