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The Middle Man review – off-kilter black comedy doesn’t stick the landing

Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer's bleak but well-crafted look at Rust Belt America is a deadpan delight... until an ill-judged last act

It’s a long-held stereotype that Scandinavians are preternaturally good at speaking English. That might be why The Middle Man, set in prime Rust Belt USA but populated by a cast of mostly Norwegians and Danes, with a few token Canadians thrown in for good measure, feels like a convincing recreation of a mythological Americana. And for what it’s worth, the cast do a fantastic job of playing ersatz Americans, though every now and then a vowel sound swings into Scandi by accident, or a phrase doesn’t feel quite right. That slight “off-ness” actually meshes perfectly well with The Middle Man’s themes and style: this is a film in which everything is slightly off-kilter and clipped.

We’re in the post-industrial town of Kormack, a place so blighted by misery and misfortune it has to hire a specialist middle man whose job is exclusively to deliver bad news to Kormack’s residents: bereavements, hospitalisations and terrible accidents. That man is Frank Farelly (Pål Sverre Hagen), though his appointment annoys local nemesis Bob Spencer (Trond Fausa), leading to a simmering anger. Frank’s gentle demeanour means he’s well-suited to the empathetic nature of the job, though he arguably doesn’t have the emotional aloofness to handle it day-to-day; ironically Bob’s coldness would make him a better long-term fit.

Director Bent Hamer is at his best here when he focuses on location and milieu. Kormack may be built out of location shots from Canada and Germany, but it feels genuinely miserable and left-behind: a world of damp rot-wood houses, creaking rusty street signs, and windowless offices. The idea that such a town has to outsource heavily emotional labour is a believable jab at small town government practices in an age of neoliberal, hollowed-out budgets, where policy is directed at placating the symptoms rather than the causes of such misery.

This sense of a hopeless, dead-eyed world brings The Middle Man in line with a particularly Scandinavian vein of black comedy, and you’re certainly in morbid territory when lines like “my daughter doesn’t have a face” are delivered with belly-laugh-inducing deadpan. The excellent and somewhat forgotten 2006 existential comedy The Bothersome Man, directed by Jens Lien and also starring Fausa, may well be a reference point.

Unfortunately, Hamer doesn’t quite stick the landing. The underlying misanthropy of his premise may well have delivered a suitably cathartic ending if taken to its fullest confusion, though I’ve no idea how closely this hews to the source novel by Lars Saabye Christensen. Instead, the last third backloads much of the plot; having shuffled along amicably for much of the runtime, suddenly the pace jumps up a bit, as if hurriedly remembering there’s a narrative to wind up. But the real issue is the strange pleasantness of its final moments. It's a pleasantness that, sadly, is widely at odds with the bleak and well-crafted tone of all that’s gone before.

The Middle Man is released in UK cinemas on 10 March.

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