Toronto 2021 Review: THE MIDDLE MAN, A Deadpan Comedy about Life
The small midwestern town of Karmack is dying. Figuratively, as its principal industry, a rail-yard, have been lost to the vagaries of globalization. Also, quite literally, as there has been a lengthy string of fatal accidents that prompts the town council to hire a 'Middle Man' to handle the communications aspects to the bereaved families. The two candidates for the job consist of Bob, the town's belligerent drinker (also the ex-boyfriend of the municipal secretary), or Frank, the quiet ex-railroad worker that still lives with his mother at 30. Frank has the tall skinny frame of an undertaker, and a wisp of leading-man good looks, is the clear choice to deliver bad news to his neighbours.
This morbidly humorous scenario comes from the mind and direction of deeply underrated filmmaker Bent Hamer, who has a penchant for quirkily essaying weird jobs as a form soul searching and expression of human universality. His previous film, 1001 Grams was a droll relationship drama that followed the travails and romance of the woman in charge of having the calibration of Norway’s ‘national kilogram’ verified at a conference in Paris. It was a film of witty visual detail that elicited a constant string of sly smiles from yours truly. Hamer has not made a film for almost a decade.
The Middle Man is a curious Norwegian-Canadian-German co-production that builds an American Rustbelt town, whole cloth, using Canada’s northern blue collar town of Sault Ste. Marie, as well as several Northern European locations along with a commensurate collection of actors to play the townspeople in various shades of curious subtlety.
The town council consists of: the pastor, played by Denmark's Nicolas Bro; the doctor, Canada’s Don McKellar in age-make-up and mannered body language; and the gruff, but resigned, sheriff, a silver-fox, deadpan Paul Gross. The film has a visual field-day in how it frames and stages the town elders' training, and chaperoning of Frank, played soulfully, but vaguely sinister, by Norway’s Pål Sverre Hagen (Kon Tiki). Maybe it is the tightly cropped moustache. Aksel Hennie makes an appearance as the crime-scene cleaner and entrepreneur. Canuck mainstay, Kenneth Welsh, gives a surprisingly emotional performance as a grieving father. Nina Andresen Borud makes an impression as Frank’s chary, suspicious mother. There are enough top-shelf character actors in The Middle Man to give a season of Deadwood a run for its money.
Perhaps my favourite detail, in a film that thrives on detail as much as it does on plot, is the rundown local cinema. It has been shuttered for some time, but lacking enough marquee letters to announce its closure, an upside down number 5 was substituted for the letter S in word “Closed.”
No two people’s grief is the same, but the film aims to highlight some similarities in the mourning process. The town itself is a pictorial realization of this. Abandoned pleasure-boats float aimlessly in the harbour, as past residents did not want to finish the payment, lost reminders of the former middle-class affluence of places like Karmack. The town's damp asphalt is more filled-cracks than functional roadway. And the principle home decor seems to consist of wood panelling and that kind of robins-egg blue colour popular in the 1950s. It was not until a character pulled out an iPhone more than half way through the picture that I realized this film was not set in the late Reagan period of which Franks Chevrolet Caprice belongs.
"There is stuff to do, even when there is nothing to do," Frank laments about his new job, as he starts delivering bad news, in fits and starts, to the town folk. He begins to court Blenda, his secretary (Tuva Novotny, charming) alienating her ex-boyfriend who did not get the middle man job. Frank and Blenda begin to deal with the various conflicts of interest that this new position, and their tryst, draws like moths to a flame.
What I adore about The Middle Man is the tiny universe that Hamer has crafted in such an efficient span of runtime. A tangled web of unspoken issues in a town where everyone is connected in some way to everyone else. Void of the political anger that has manifested, recently, in the ‘opportunity vacuums’ of the working class towns of America, Hamer is far more interested in the personal effects of dealing with a constant trickle of bad news - the point in 'history' where it transform from tragedy to farce. His best, or perhaps cruellest, observation might just be that there is no reason, only chaos. And everyone is their own unmoored boat.