The Middle Man : ‘TIFF’ Review – Coen-esque black comedy falls short of its potential
Here’s something interesting – Bent Hamer’s The Middle Man is a Dutch, Norwegian and German co-production, starring actors who are all of Nordic descent as well as the technical crew and the director as well. However the story takes place in a fictional town of Karmack somewhere in the Midwestern USA, and the primary language of the movie is in English, more accurately American English.
It’s fascinating because ostensibly speaking, this is supposed to be a satirical look at the United States during the tenure of Donald Trump’s Presidency. Frank, the protagonist is a middleman, a job created by “The Commission” – a triumvirate consisting of the Sheriff, the Doctor, and the Pastor – who decide to hire a ‘Middle Man’ whose sole responsibility will be to inform the family when an unfortunate incident occurs. The existence of such a job is due to the town’s constant state of depression caused due to financial collapse, and due to the Commission’s fear of being able to bear the bad news.
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It’s a weird, almost idiosyncratic of a premise, but as a kernel of satire is debatable. The town’s only sign of activity is the dying embers of a steel plant. A freight train passes the closed down railway station at the dead of night leaving only a whistle in its lonely wake. Most of the inhabitants of this town feel like they are walking through a daze, waiting for something impactful to happen, but even if it occurs they are unable to react, or maybe they have forgotten to.
But these are aesthetics, moments you glance at as the movie passes through. There is no moment throughout the 95-minute runtime, where the said commentary is even tackled or referenced head-on. Being a completely non-American crew, an outsider’s perspective in the rust belt of America would be an interesting point of view, but Hamer doesn’t run with it or do anything worthwhile.
Remove the satire and what we have is the episodic storytelling structure following a thoughtful but naive Frank Farelli – a man who takes the role of the middleman with gusto, but is slowly blindsided by events in the movie which could only be described as a comedy of errors, or fate playing cruel tricks. There is ample influence of the Coens in this form of storytelling that infuses dark humor, but unlike their films, there is a lack of energy to the proceedings. Frank’s deadpan or limited gasp of surprise and horror gives an added dose of humor, but that lack of energy in the characters also gets transmitted in the narrative.
What occurs are vignettes of varying tone and structure, varying intensity in humor and seriousness. The strongest amount of laughs which the movie elicited from me, was when the commission discovers a case of mistaken identity in the worst way possible; the survivor of a train accident reveals herself as the girl who was supposed to be dead, to the mother of the girl who was supposed to be alive. It is a mix-up, which even as I am writing is forcing me to crack up, because that strange mix of pathos and black humor is the tone which Hamer should have tried to maintain throughout the movie, instead of it hitting its peak in that key scene.
There is a tone of weirdness and lackadaisical energy permeating throughout the film, which evolves into almost menacing when Frank chooses a course of action which causes him to question the nature of fate underlying his whole journey throughout his life and the film. It’s an interesting look into the psyche of the soul, and Hamer and actor Pal Sverre Hagen completely sell that moment to the audience. However, the entire resolution at the end feels unsatisfying, primarily because The Middle Man never really delivered on what it promised.
It was a sweet love story, an oddball comedy, a character study, all interesting parts that don’t form a cohesive whole. But the biggest omission it does undermine is the whole point of its existence – an entirely Nordic crew and cast try to tell a story of the failings of Trump’s America in the rust belts who were the prime cause of his election to the presidency. The movie doesn’t delve into that topic at all.
It’s almost comparable to ordering the dish at the restaurant you are so eager to bite in, but instead, you are fed appetizers throughout the whole dinner, and then you learn that the dish you were looking forward to is instead the spices used to enhance the appetizers.