The Middle Man, 2021.
Written and directed by Bent Hamer.
Starring Pål Sverre Hagen, Tuva Novotny, Paul Gross, Nina Andresen Borud, Don McKellar, Rossif Sutherland, Nicolas Bro, Kenneth Welsh, Trond Fausa Aurvåg, Aksel Hennie, and Sheila McCarthy.
Frank Farrelli takes on the job of a middle man in the God-forsaken town of Karmack, USA, a community in a depression so deep that they need a middle man to professionally communicate the bad news.
Fate and fortune collide with typically irony-laced results in Norwegian auteur Bent Hamer’s (Factotum) first film in seven years, a delectable U.S.-set black comedy which just might win the director some new fans.
In the economically and spiritually depressed town of Karmack, seemingly random accidental deaths are commonplace, enough that the authorities have created the job of a “middle man,” tasked with delivering the bad news to the victims’ families.
The newly-appointed middle man is quiet, unassuming Frank Farrelli (Pål Sverre Hagen), who tackles his job with a dignified solemnity, though as the locals witness him bringing news of accidents and death, they quickly become hostile to his very presence. This threatens to boil over into violence, as Frank is forced to consider whether his line of work is a sacred honour or a cosmic curse.
Hamer’s film is an expertly crafted absurdist rumination on the classic adage that with great power comes great responsibility. Frank is not only given the draining task of announcing the worst news to people that they will ever hear, but he’s also duty-bound to keep the information he learns to himself. The weight of secrecy becoming crushing, especially as his nosy mother (Nina Andresen Borud) routinely begs him to spill the tea.
There’s both a lyrical profundity and deep intimacy to Hamer’s script, on one hand philosophising broadly on the very nature of “accidents” and how humans try to find meaning in meaninglessness, and on the other capturing Karmack’s denizens in their very genuine psychic pain.
As grimly, awkwardly amusing as the set-pieces where Frank breaks the news of a loved one’s death to their family may be, Hamer never treats death, destruction, or human vulnerability flippantly, pinballing nimbly between modes as a scene requires. From its quirky opening through to its quietly savage finale, there’s a tightly woven thread of character and scenario setups which payoff without ever whiffing even slightly of contrivance.
In a not dissimilar fashion to the worlds of Roy Andersson’s films, Karmack feels alive in an incredibly singular way. With the “American” city actually shot in both Germany and Canada, and the cast comprised of actors sporting a variety of accents they rarely try to hide, there’s a soupy, otherworldly quality to the town. While perhaps not convincingly, authentically Midwestern America, Karmack captures the quiet desperation of small-town Anywhere.
It doesn’t hurt that DP John Christian Rosenlund’s lensing gives the film a ruggedly lived-in vibe albeit one still capturing great natural beauty. In tandem with a slick, pacy edit from veteran editor-filmmaker Anders Refn (father of Nicolas Winding), and a dreamy country-styled score by Jonathan Goldsmith, this is one dramedy that lets nothing slip away in style.
But perhaps the film’s greatest coup is its impeccable casting from the smallest role to the biggest. Lead Pål Sverre Hagen, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Edward Norton, Ryan Gosling, and Ben Mendelsohn somehow all at once, gives a performance of masterfully steely composure, that even in Frank’s most stressful, put-upon moments rarely rises above a controlled simmer.
There’s not a single off-note among the entire ensemble, but this is Hagen’s show, and he absolutely rises to the challenge of believably embodying a man with the world’s weirdest job while ripping through Hamer’s wryly detached dialogue.
Many will surely be left bemused and perhaps mildly irritated by Hamer’s defiant approach to genre conventions, but on the basis of his sense of humour demonstrated here, one suspects he’d probably laugh at that. A breath of fresh air isn’t even the descriptor for a film that switch-foots this boldly between moods in pursuit of a truly unique, unforgettable study of both character and place.
Bent Hamer’s fiercely singular The Middle Man matches its bleakly absurd laughs with thoughtful musings on fate and small-town life.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.