The Middle Man

The Middle Man (2021)

The Middle Man first published by Sight and Sound, April 2023

Review: Adapted by its director Bent Hamer from Lars Saabye Christensen’s 2012 novel Sluk, The Middle Man is set during the Trump Presidency in the fictional Midwest town of Karmack – a once flourishing community which has of late suffered severe economic depression, and has an unusually high rate of injuries and deaths among its residents. Those are officially deemed accidents, although other factors – poor infrastructure, psychological despair, foul play – also contribute to these incidents. Town Hall creates a new post of ‘middle man’ to assist the town’s overwhelmed sheriff (Paul Gross), doctor (Don McKellar) and priest (Nicolas Bro) in the delicate task of breaking the bad news to the victims’ loved ones.

In his interview for the job at the film’s beginning, Frank Farrelli (Pål Sverre Hagen) illustrates his suitability with an anecdote of how he was the one who had to tell his mother (Nina Andreson Borud) of his father’s death. As Frank explains that his father fell from a low ladder onto a scythe, and adds, “His head cracked open like an egg,” it is hard to tell whether he is laughing or crying (although he insists to the panel that he never cries). This equivocal response sets the tone for a film that casts people’s darkest moments in a blackly comic register, with cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund’s mid and wide shots capturing Karmack’s grief at a distance that amplifies the deadpan absurdities. 

Frank gets the job, starts a relationship with his secretary Blenda (Tuva Novotny), and begins gradually to find his own two feet away from his mother – but as the accidents start getting ever closer to home, our protagonist questions his own place in the causal chain. “Why can’t anyone just straight out say, ‘I’m guilty. It’s me.’?”, the sheriff will ask after a barroom incident leaves Frank’s best friend Steve (Rossif Sutherland) in a coma – and no matter how much Frank may, as middle man, get to choose his euphemisms and his evasive consolations in imparting the most intimate of tragedies, there is guilt aplenty to go around and the truth must eventually out. 

Shot in Ontario, Canada and parts of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, and with Norwegian actors making up half its cast, The Middle Man shows the dreamy artifice behind the  MAGA yearning for past prosperity. Here very real brokenness and misery are refashioned as individual psychosis and collective fiction, and responsibility as something to be escaped. “Sometimes I wonder,” Frank muses, “what are accidents really?” Hamer reframes that question in unexpected and increasingly disturbing ways.  

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Synopsis: Karmack, American’s Midwest, during the Trump presidency. As the town falls into decline and accidents become frequent, Frank Farrelli secures a job with the Town Hall as ‘Middle Man’, delivering bad news to victims’ loved ones. Yet amid all the euphemisms and bromides, Frank is concealing his own guilty secrets. 

strap: First darkly funny, and then just dark, Bent Hamer’s deadpan feature is a small-town story of misery euphemised and murder repressed

Anton Bitel