Director – Bent Hamer – 2021 – Norway, Denmark, Canada, UK, Germany, Switzerland – Cert. 15 – 95m
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but… A man in a heartland American town becomes a middle man, whose job it is to convey bad news to local people – out in UK cinemas on Friday, March 10th
Curiously for an English language film set in a small American town, this one was funded by a variety of European countries and Canada. While its visuals clearly owe much to the films of David Lynch, particularly Blue Velvet (1986) and Lost Highway (1997) with their heavy night time interiors filled with dark, impenetrable black spaces, it eschews the over the top moments of sex and violence with which Lynch peppers these films with something much less jocular and more deadpan. Like Lynch it feels distinctly odd, yet in a completely different way. Unlike those films, it’s adapted from (part of) a novel.
Opening images. Factories in a town belch smoke. A small, industrial town on a river. This is Karmack, USA.
Frank Farrelli (Pål Sverre Hagen) is the second interviewee by the three person panel (the local sheriff, pastor and doctor played respectively by Paul Gross, Nicholas Bro and Canadian regular Don McKellar) for the town’s job of middle man, the person who has to deliver bad news, e.g. about the unexpected death of a loved one, to the locals.
It’s a job that the practitioner needs to keep compartmentalised from their life outside work – however, even in his interview, Frank brings up having to tell his mother the news of the death of his father, believing it shows he can do the job. He is not supposed to talk about his on the job dealings with people outside of work, which looks like it may be a problem because he relates this very fact to those around him.
Awarded a two month trial period in the position, Frank is immediately required to be measured for a low-key suit and have his car spray-painted an equally low-key grey, for which job he uses the services of his best mate and only friend, garage-owner Steve (Rossif Sutherland). The bearer of bad news needs to be nondescript so as to make the delivery of that news as straightforward as possible.
Frank is dropped straight in at the deep end, as after learning from Mr. Stout the tailor (Bill Lake) that he and his wife (Sheila McCarthy) are expecting their son home from active military service that day, Frank is informed by the Sheriff outside in the car that the boy has been involved in a fatal road accident and drowned in the river. As Frank is fast learning and the Sheriff points out, there’s never a good time to delver bad news.
Off-duty, Frank and Steve are in a bar when a row erupts between Steve and Bob Spencer (Trond Fausa Aurvåg), the embittered, failed candidate for Frank’s new job, over the request by customer Mrs. Stout for jukebox song B-12, resulting in a coma, severe brain damage and hospitalisation for Steve. Bad news seems to be making its way into Frank’s private life. He is charged with informing Steve’s father Martin (Kenneth Welsh), who already has health issues and subsequently spends all his time in the hospital by his comatose son’s side.
The only person he really talks to about his work is his secretary Blenda (Tuva Novotny), a source of constant encouragement who looks after him at work. They get on well, so well, in fact, that soon they’re sleeping together in the apartment adjoining the rundown, disused cinema inherited from her late father who used to manage it.
When the town’s life proceeds for a while without incident, Frank starts to worry that he might soon be out of a job. But his worry is to prove unfounded…
In addition to the unseen car crash of the Stout son, there’s a reported incident involving two 18-year-old girls being fatally hit by an oncoming train in the middle of the night, after which Frank has to inform one set of parents.
The position of middle man here recalls the two military types employed in The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009) required to inform relatives of soldiers that they’ve been killed. It’s a very necessary if peculiar job with its specific and particular rules of engagement to get the job done.
The protagonist of The Middle Man is much more community-oriented in the sense that he’s a local man who may well already know some of the people he’ll have to talk too, although given that he only really has one friend – his mate Steve – and his mum, he’s more a loner than someone likely to know numerous members of the local community.
Once Steve is out of the picture and Frank is spending more and more time with Blenda and less at home where his mother is, he seems even more isolated.
Director Hamer has created a cod-Lynchian world in which his protagonist must move and act which is highly effective at the start but seems to lose its hold on the viewer as the film proceeds. Nevertheless, a gift for for expressing the deadpan serves him well: there’s a tone to much of the film that’s quite compelling, as witnessed for instance in the unlikely questions Frank is asked in the opening interview panel and the even more unlikely answers he gives. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film where terrible accidents occur offscreen except when they occur onscreen in the personal life of the narrative’s otherwise distanced protagonist.
The Middle Man is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 10th.