Set in Karmack, a Rust Belt American town beset by an inexplicable number of violent accidents, the film follows Frank Farrelli, played by Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Hagen, a ‘middle man’ who delivers bad news to the victims’ families.
With a Norwegian director and half its cast coming from Scandinavia, the film has a classic deadpan style, reminiscent of Scandinavian filmmaker Roy Andersson (A Pigeon Sat on a Bench). But carelessly transported to a story set across the Atlantic, the effect is disorientating. The bilingual distraction, detectable for any native English speaker, only emphasises the film’s disjointedness. Clearly, art and culture from Northern Europe aren’t wholly communicable, even across closely related European diaspora cultures like those in the North American midwest.
Based on Lars Saabye Christensen’s 2012 novel Sluk, the film follows Frank as he assumes the ‘middle man’ position. With his downcast attitude, he seems ideally suited for the job. However, things take a turn for the worse when his budding romance with his secretary Blenda (Tuva Novotny, Swedish), is threatened by her jealous ex-boyfriend Bob (Trond Fausa Aurvåg, Norwegian). A bar fight ensues, and Frank’s best friend Steve (Rossif Sutherland, Canadian) ends up in a coma, leaving Frank to deliver the bad news to Steve’s father (Kenneth Welsh, Canadian).
Despite sometimes being delivered with dispassionate humour, The Middle Man is drenched in grief and fails to ignore the likelihood that it’s all too hollow. After the first half hour, I gave up hope of expecting any twisted dark comedy moments that can, when done right, expertly puncture a depressing scene.
The Middle Man's greatest folly is its lacklustre effort to fully develop its character portrayals and plot. The storyline is too silly to take seriously, and whilst undeniably original and visually arresting, it fails to strike the right note.
Terry Gilliam or David Lynch could have adapted Christensen’s book to give it the macabre tension that may have justified the uncanny valley Scandinavian accents perceptible throughout. Instead, it’s too restrained and tame. At the very least, it won’t leave you insulted that you’ve wasted your time; there are enough handsome mustard yellow and forest green visuals in Hamer’s movie – and some decent acting. But The Middle Man will leave you mildly confused, as if you fell asleep at a crucial moment.