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Intolerable Cruelty

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TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
The Middle Man (2021)

Bent Hamer seems to specialize in charming tales about eccentric small-time characters, like “Kitchen Stories” and “O’Horten.” Without the charm, we’re sort of in Coen brothers territory. Such is the case with “The Middle Man,” his adaptation of Lars Saabye Christensen’s novel “Sluk.” Some imply – as can be seen in the Toronto International Film Festival programming notes – that it has a comedic tenor, though that’s not the impression it left on this reviewer.

The premise is unmistakably Hamerian: In a hopeless small town beset by business closures and unemployment, Frank Farelli (Pål Sverre Hagen of “Kon-Tiki”) lands a trial gig in the coveted yet unenviable titular job – essentially, the bearer of bad news, who informs surviving relatives about the accidental deaths of their loved ones – perhaps herein lies the disconnect, because not everyone finds humor in others’ suffering.

The new job comes with sweet benefits, enabling Frank to make the rounds and do business with the town’s butcher, mechanic and tailor – in that order. It also allows him to date city hall secretary, Brenda (Tuva Novotny) – a major step considering he still lives with his mother (Nina Andresen Borud). He is explicitly warned about confidentiality rules, a point which the film never revisits even when his lips begin to loosen.

Troublemaker Bob Spencer (Trond Fausa) and mechanic Steve Miller (Rossif Sutherland) get into a bar fight, leaving Steve in a vegetative state. Bob apparently dated Brenda and has coveted Frank’s job. Meanwhile, two teenaged girls get into a train accident which only one survives and which leaves them both disfigured so badly that their identities get mixed up – making Frank’s job all the more awkward.

It’s not clear how the film goes from zero to 100 from here, with Frank eventually having to dispose of a corpse, something he apparently has done before. This is an ending that no one sees coming. These late revelations – with stone-cold sociopathy worthy of the Coens comparison – are inconsistent with the characterization he’s been given. Some of the subplots the film has been building up to this point, such as the life-or-death decision of whether to pull Steve off of life support, carelessly get the short shrift. In the end, all of Frank’s personal wins feel like they have been at the expense of other townsfolk, something that no one – not even the viewers – ever wanted.

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