“Well, it’s not the worst thing that’s happened tonight”
Norwegian writer/director Bent Hamer’s The Middle Man is a curious beast, undoubtedly holding a dark comic Scandinavian edge, it contains a smattering of European and Canadian actors, was filmed in Canada and Germany, and in set in the rustbelt of the United States and this variable banquet of influences doesn’t quite settle into a fully cohesive story, with only vignettes standing out from the overall potential.
Taking place in the fictional Midwest city of Karmack, The Middle Man aims for social satire. This is a town where sad things happen with such regularity that even the flags on City Hall sit soberly at half-mast every day of the week. Accidents are high, bad luck is king, there’s not much money left and they’re discussing turning off the street lights at night to save cash – which surely won’t help the death rate.
There is one industry thriving though, that’s the accident clean-up and reporting crew, the people who scrub away the mess. Alongside that, there’s a role for someone to tell the families of those misfortune ones what’s happened. This is led by ‘The Commission’, a local trio containing the Sheriff, the Doctor and a Pastor, who need to hire a Middle Man to do that job. This is how we meet Pål Sverre Hagen’s Frank Farrelli, a local man who needs a job in a place where work is rare. The Commission decide that Frank is perfect, and holds the right temperament, but is Frank ready for the personal journey and… is he prepared for happiness in a job that brings sorrow?
On a positive note, The Middle Man is a visually striking and certainly dark, comic Scandi-style drama, the performances are good with Pål Sverre Hagen as Frank, and Tuva Novotny as Blenda, particularly standing out. Their character relationship is a natural one, and seems like another separate part of the story but it works. Blenda brings life to the screen and also to Frank, so as they grow together, it paints a picture of life beyond the death that surrounds them. The ensemble also offer solid performances but I felt that they missed a trick with an important character, Bob (Trond Fusa Aurvag), who’s fundamentally Frank’s antagonist and underused – more scenes with him would have been welcomed as their brief time injects amusing ridiculousness into sombre situations.
On the flipside of some positives, we know we’re in a broken, American town and while we’re given an idea of that, the US City setting is merely surface level, and we never scrub the bones of the reason we’re specifically in Karmack. Steelworks and job losses are mentioned, and it feels like a chance to balance out the reality and the satirical of a dying American industry but it’s not really explored. While we could be anywhere, in this particular case, that’s a distraction.
The Middle Man is director Hamer’s delve into English language drama, and you can’t help but consider what it would have been like if they’d filmed it in Norway but spoken English, or even set it in Canada, for the story would work within the bleakness of the colder parts of the great Maple-leafed country. Also, the slower paced nature of everything tends to slow certain moments down a little too much, especially when it’s not clear if it’s purely comic or serious, and without those beats, it sits in the uncomfortable awkwardness of itself more than a few times, rather than finding one regular dry angle.
If you like your Scandi-absurdist stylistics, then there’s no doubt that’s here but the overall message doesn’t really come through, whatever it is trying to say. They’re playing on the reversal of rags to riches, with Frank’s middleman from a complete loss to eventually improving his own life by other people’s tragedies but it’s not totally inaccessible.
I wouldn’t say The Middle Man is a joyous ride, nor it is meant to be, but it’s not too depressing either, and while elements of the absurd are laced with black comedy, it never becomes too Martin McDonagh or Coen-brothers-silly enough even though I think it wants to. Dark moments sit for a while but it’s not memorable enough to linger longer than that. However, you’ll like the lead pair (plus a stellar How To Disappear Completely cover by Ane Brun) and you’ll want something for them in this dry and absurdist Scandi-style drama that goes deep into our life while death lingers above.
The Middle Man comes to UK cinemas from 10th March
It’ll be screening at Cineworld, VUE and Odeon, and will also play at the following independent cinemas: