Reel Reviews | The Middle Man (TIFF ’21)

by Jared Mobarak | The Film Stage

Frank Farelli (Pål Sverre Hagen) has been unemployed in a dying town for quite some time.

The area used to attract visitors in the past—not many, but enough to staff a hotel that’s now been closed for years. So too has the local movie theater. As the so-called “Commission” (Paul Gross’ Sheriff, Nicolas Bro’s Pastor, and Don McKellar’s Doctor) explains it, they may not be able to keep the streetlights going thanks to a dwindling budget caused by a lack of taxpayers. Not only has most of the town left, but those who inexplicably remain are currently suffering from a rash of accidental tragedies. And since Town Hall consists of those three men and a secretary (Tuva Novotny’s Brenda), someone is needed to break the bad news.

Enter a newly formed government position: The Middle Man. It won’t be easy, but Frank used to work a train station window before it also shut down and left residents blaming him for the locomotive not stopping. He thus knows how it feels to be abused for circumstances outside his control—and he needs the money, if for no other reason than to stop being in his mother’s (Nina Andresen Borud) hair all the time. The Commission is tough, though. They never relinquish their poker faces while grilling him to make certain he’s the better candidate amongst the two who applied (Frank’s “nemesis” Bob, as played by Trond Fausa, is the other). Brenda, having dated Bob, knows Frank is the frontrunner. His docile temperament is more appealing.

Working from Lars Saabye Christensen’s novel Sluk, Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer leads us through Frank’s story with an off-kilter absurdity and bone-dry hilarity. Casting a recognizable European and Canadian stable of actors only adds to that tone, since the setting (as evidenced by painted signage on a building) is meant to be America. Think the Rust Belt with its decaying factories and oblivious yokels too entrenched (and poor) to ever follow those who already escaped when the writing first went on the wall. And they all know each other to the point where the Sheriff swearing Frank to secrecy about his job proves ludicrous. Everyone is probably discovering who was recently maimed or killed as he’s telling next of kin.

In great comedic fashion, however, Frank’s hiring leads to an unlikely streak wherein no one gets hurt at all. There he is in his new black suit—always on call—with nothing to do but awkwardly flirt with an obviously interested Brenda. It should be no surprise, then, that when tragedy does finally strike, he’s present at the incident. Suddenly he’s told he’s bad luck and we’re left wondering if it’s true. Frank told the Commission during his interview that he witnessed his father’s accidental death. And he couldn’t even get that suit measured without having to discover the tailor would be his first “client.” Death and pain seem to follow him even though he himself would never hurt a soul. He’s like a walking Monkey’s Paw disaster.

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