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film review

From left: Nicolas Bro, Paul Gross and Don McKellar.Courtesy of TIFF

  • The Middle Man
  • Written and directed by Bent Hamer
  • Starring Pål Sverre Hagen, Tuva Novotny and Paul Gross
  • Classification PG; 95 minutes
  • Opens May 27 in Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon; June 3 in Hamilton

Critic’s Pick

In the peculiar dark comedy, The Middle Man, so many severe accidents are befalling a town that its civic leaders feel compelled to hire someone to break the bad news to the next of kin after the mishaps. Two men are up for the job, but one guy is unfit on appearance alone. He has a pimpled face, which simply wouldn’t do: “The victims are tormented enough already,” it is explained.

That a person is judged only on poor complexion hardly seems reasonable. Life isn’t fair, though, as this excellent work of existentialism tells us over and over again.

The Middle Man is directed by Norway’s Bent Hamer, who adapted the story from a novel (Sluk) by the Norwegian/Danish author Lars Saabye Christensen. The film has a Scandinavian austerity and vitamin D deficiency, with a blue-grey visual tone that matches the sobriety of the characters. Fans of the Coen brothers will enjoy the casually abrupt developments and blank-faced absurdity.

The film is set in the economically depressed American Midwest. Frank Farrelli (played by Pal Sverre Hagen) is the titular middle man, hired by a three-man commission who can no longer keep up with the job of delivering all the awful news themselves. Accidents represent the town’s lone growth industry.

Farrelli is an awkward sad soul who lives with his mother. He used to work at the train station, but the train no longer stops there. This is a community bypassed, like so many towns that go from one industry to no industry, In his new black suit, Farrelli gets to work. The string of bad luck is his good fortune.

The town is named Karmack. And while that might sound like karma, the film suggests the idea of equitability in life is hooey.

“There’s no fairness in all this,” says the town’s sheriff, played by Paul Gross. “There’s no reason – it’s just chaos.”

Gross is among the strong contingent of Canadian actors here. Sheila McCarthy plays a grieving mother; Don McKellar is the sedate doctor. The late Kenneth Welsh, in one of the final roles of his distinguished career on stage and on screen, is a rough-cut retiree and the father of a carefree gas-station operator played by Rossif Sutherland.

When two girls are involved in train-track accident, only one is lucky enough to survive. Is this kismet, or is this chaos? Don’t ask Farrelli – he’s just the middle man.

As the town stoically deals with its rampant misfortune, Farrelli, for the most part, catches a weird winning streak. His new job even comes with a secretary, portrayed wonderfully by Tuva Novotny. She quickly becomes his lover.

The girlfriend lives above a film theatre long shuttered. We can see depressed Karmack as a symbol of late-stage capitalism, with its citizens all but stuck there.

As the last scene shows, ships come in only for select people. It hardly seems fair, but if life was just and perfect, directors such as Hamer wouldn’t have such compelling stories to tell.

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