‘The Middle Man’: Film Review | TIFF 2021

An emotionally repressed man assumes the job of informing family members when unfortunate accidents occur in Bent Hamer’s darkly satirical comedy.

Don’t be surprised if you feel disoriented watching Bent Hamer’s dark, absurdist comedy, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. The director-screenwriter is Norwegian, adapting a book written by a Norwegian-Danish author. The cast includes European and Canadian actors speaking English with varied accents, and although the shooting locations were Canada and Germany, the action takes place in a small town somewhere in the American Rust Belt. The deadpan tone is redolent of the work of many Scandinavian filmmakers, including Aki Kaurismaki and Roy Andersson. The resultant polyglot feeling, presumably meant to feel universal, only underscores the confused nature of The Middle Man.

Pål Sverre Hagen (arrestingly low-key) plays the central role of Frank, who’s hired by the town’s ruling “Commission” — composed of the Sheriff (Paul Gross, exuding gravitas), Doctor (Don McKellar) and Pastor (Nicholas Bro) — to assume the newly created position of “Middle Man” for the community, which seems inordinately plagued by a series of unfortunate accidents.

The Middle Man

The Bottom Line

Too restrained for its own good.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)

Cast: Pål Sverre Hagen, Tuva Novotny, Paul Gross, Nina Andresen-Borud, Don McKellar, Rossif Sutherland, Nicholas Bro, Kenneth Welsh, Trond Fausa Aurvag, Aksel Hennie, Sheila McCarthy

Director-screenwriter: Bent Hamer

1 hour 35 minutes

Frank’s job is to be the bearer of bad tidings, to inform family members about calamities that have befallen their loved ones. Needless to say, it’s a heavy responsibility, and Frank, with his hangdog demeanor and vaguely depressed mien, seems perfectly suited for it. Especially when he’s outfitted with a stern black suit and suitably unadorned business cards. “We can’t have a Middle Man who cries,” the Sheriff advises Frank upon spotting signs of emotion. “Crying is a privilege that belongs to the next of kin.”

Frank celebrates his new position by buying himself a T-bone steak — or at least half of one, which is all he can afford. The annoyed butcher injures himself while attempting to cut the meat, in what could be a harbinger of Frank’s future travails.

Frank has another thing to be happy about when he embarks on a relationship with his new secretary, Brenda (Tuva Novotny), who manages to overcome his emotional passivity. But things take a turn for the worse when her bitter ex-boyfriend Bob (Trond Fausa Aurvag) starts a bar fight that puts Frank’s best friend, Steve (Rossif Sutherland), in a coma, apparently brain-dead. Fulfilling his new job requirements, Frank brings the news to Steve’s father (Canadian acting veteran Kenneth Welsh), who reacts to the Middle Man’s bumbling attempts to get the message across with undisguised hostility.

Other tragedies ensue, including the car-accident death of a young man returning from the military to his parents (Bill Lake and Sheila McCarthy, the latter another familiar face from Canadian cinema) and a bizarre incident involving two teenage girls who are hit by a train while walking on the tracks, leaving one dead and the other seriously injured. Eventually, Frank finds himself ensnared in a perilous situation that hits close to home.

The film quietly deals with themes of loss and grief, leavened with doses of deadpan humor that feel distinctly Scandinavian. But while Hamer establishes a suitably oppressive visual tone with his carefully composed shots and elegant camera moves, it’s hard to determine exactly what he’s going for in emotional terms. The storyline is too ridiculous to take seriously, but it never reaches the sort of absurdist heights that would allow us to more fully embrace its stranger elements. Nor does it fully work on a dramatic level, with the characterizations and situations, such as the burgeoning romance between Frank and Brenda, and Frank’s tense relationship with his mother (Nina Andresen-Borud), feeling underdeveloped.

For all the provocativeness of its undeniably original conceit, The Middle Man is too restrained, too tame, to achieve the desired effect. You find yourself wishing that the concept had been tackled by the likes of a Stephen King, Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock, to see what sort of diabolically perverse spin they might have put on it.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: BulBul Film, The Film Farm, Pandora Filmproduktion, Profile Pictures, Bord Cadre Films, Sovereign Films
Cast: Pål Sverre Hagen, Tuva Novotny, Paul Gross, Nina Andresen-Borud, Don McKellar, Rossif Sutherland, Nicholas Bro, Kenneth Welsh, Trond Fausa Aurvag, Aksel Hennie, Sheila McCarthy
Director-screenwriter: Bent Hamer
Producers: Bent Hamer, Simone Urdl, Reinhard Brundig, Jamie Manning, Jennifer Weiss, Nina Frese, Jacob Jarek
Director of photography: John Christian Rosenlund
Production designer: Diana Mangnus
Costume designer: Amanda Lee Street
Editor: Anders Refn
Composer: Jonathan Goldsmith

1 hour 35 minutes