Cult of Personality: Acute Misfortune (2020)-Reviewed

What is it about certain people that causes us to stay in toxic relationships? Be they platonic or romantic, why is it some people get in so deep under our skin, that no matter how abusive things get, we just can’t stay away? Thomas M. Wright’s Acute Misfortune attempts to answer these questions with its re-telling of journalist Erik Jensen’s biography of Australian visual artist Adam Cullen. 

Taking place over a few years, Acute Misfortune follows Jensen (Toby Wallace) as he shadows Cullen (Daniel Henshall) after he recruits him to pen his biography. Cullen, enigmatic and destructive, both to himself and others, is on a collusion course with death. With seemingly no regard for anyone or anything outside of his art career he takes Jensen on a journey filled with truth and lies, tightening his grip the longer it goes along. 
(Image Courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

Despite being an assured debut from Wright on a visual level, there’s not a whole lot the film does to really explore anything it’s dealing with. There’s a lot left on the table and in some ways that works. The reasons why we continue to stay in abusive relationships are often mysterious, even to us. The allure of a person can be mystifying, sometimes without adequate answers, we stay because we’re trapped in the intoxicating embrace of that allure. Here however, we’re given almost nothing outside of Cullen’s intense charisma to go off of. Again, that can often be all one needs, but narratively it’s hard to fully understand why Jensen is so compelled beyond a human interest piece. Jensen has a secure job, there are never moments where he desires to break big and Cullen’s popularity seems nebulous at best. At the end of the day, the relationship between writer and subject rests solely on the shoulders of the performers. 

Thank god for Henshall and Wallace. 

The two are godsends in a sea of half baked ideas and undercooked messaging. Wallace is perfect as Jensen. Observant and quiet, he soaks in Cullen’s aura. He needs to be the kind of person you’d believe would be taken for a ride and Wallace’s childlike expressions capture it all. Through an equal mix of wonder, bemusement and horror, he acts as an audience surrogate as we bear witness to Cullen’s behavior. He’s often tremendous, never overplaying what’s in front of him. It’s difficult to play reactive to a centerpiece performance like Henshall’s but Wallace handles it remarkably well. 

And what a centerpiece performance it is. Daniel Henshall is the reason that Acute Misfortune deserves your attention. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Adam Cullen and his life, Henshall is such a compelling presence and effortlessly pulls you into the film. Cullen suffers from undisclosed mental illness and if one were to guess, it appears to be a form of bipolar disorder. There’s a softness to Cullen that makes why a person would be so wrapped up in him so convincing. Henshall doesn’t play him like a raving cult leader nor does he mire Cullen in an oppressive sadness. He captures every nuance of mental illness in devastating ways. He gets that it isn’t an excuse to mistreat someone but has the sensitivity to understand that sometimes a person is so far gone that they almost disassociate from reality. One moment Cullen is menacingly accusing Jenkins of sabotage, the next he’s tenderly giving him a gift, speaking to him like a loved one. It’s the kind of performance that stops you in your tracks because it portrays abusive behavior as insidious and damaging as it often is. 

(Image Courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

It’s such a shame, then, that the rest of the film fails to reach those heights. Wright is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker and his film is stunning. The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing parts of Australia rarely depicted on film. One does have to wonder what the reasoning behind presenting this in 4:3 aspect ratio was, however. It feels like a reach to say that it was trying to present the film as an extended example of Cullen’s artwork and instead feels more of an attempt to capture a current trend. The choice ends up stunting the lush imagery, just as the narrative stunts any emotional resonance. It’s a hollow creative choice in a regrettably hollow film.

That’s not to say Acute Misfortune is a failure, far from it. Its narrative shortcomings are masked by two undeniable lead performances. If nothing else, Henshall and Jenkins deserve your attention. Removed from them, there is something here, something transfixing. Even if you’re left wondering who exactly Cullen was or why he responded to things the way he did or why Jenkins continues to be enamored by him, there’s a power to the film that helps hold it together. It’s a mixed bag of emotional turmoil that won’t allow you comfort because sometimes life doesn’t work that way. There’s a hollowness that stays with you because there’s so much left to explore. It’s a beguiling film, one that’s almost  unquantifiable as “good” or “bad.” Like all bad relationships, the film takes more from you than it rewards and perhaps that’s the best we could hope for from a biopic about a man who did the same to the people left in his wake. 

-Brandon Streussnig