Frank Farrelli (Pal Sverre Hagen) seems to be a likeable type. He lives with his mum in a small town called Karmack. It has the same sort of forgotten feel of Fargo, but with no snow and a lot more drizzle. In fact, it’s such a depressing little town that pathetic fallacy seems to be taking things a little too literally. Along with the rain that falls, it suffers disproportionately from bad luck. So much so that the town elders, the sheriff, the doctor and the pastor – a self-decreed commission – have decided to hire a middle man, someone who will be tasked with delivering the onslaught of bad news to the distraught citizenry.
We first meet Frank as he is acing the interview. Actually, his performance is like Frank himself, relatively ho-hum. But he presumably has experience of giving bad news from working at the railway station – the third window – and so he gets the job and is soon being fitted for a suitably funereal suit and growing a semi-transparent and none-too convincing mustache. The job comes with an office and a secretary Brenda (Tuva Novotny), who he is drawn to. Sworn to secrecy and taking his new job seriously, Frank finds himself quickly pacing through the town and delivering a slough of bad news, some of which strikes close to home. For instance, his best friend ends up in a coma after a bar fight. Even his tailor has no sooner measured him for a suit than Frank must return to be the bearer of bad tidings. That said, Frank enjoys the job. He likes the new status and the sense of importance it gives him. At times, he seems to be smirking even as he attempts to console.
Brent Hamer’s adaptation of Lars Saabye Christensen’s novel has elements of Kafka to it and a fine line in dread. Karmack itself is a soul sucking place where boats abandoned by their owners end up, drifting down the river where no one apparently bothers to retrieve them except for scrap. The cinema is closed – a sure sign of small town decay – and the jukebox in the sad sack bar is so familiar that everyone knows the songs by their numbers. The humour is dark indeed but there’s also a kind of filmic absence of effect to go along with the desiccated emotions of the town.
The possibility that the misfortunes might be deliberate acts on the part of the ever present commission is hinted at as is a backstory that might make Frank more of a fitting choice for a middle man than we first suspected. But these ideas are entertained only in the briefest of ways before being forgotten. It’s unfair to compare the film too closely to the Coen Brothers at their best, if it weren’t for the fact the film is obviously treading the same territory, but this is without their Grand Guignol which soddened the snow with blood.
The acting is fine and Hagen wavers between well meaning gormlessness and something more considered and melancholic. Hamer, who previously spruced up Charles Bukowski into a presentable Matt Dillon for Factotum, manages to keep the oddness and humour within city limits. But again its this kind of restraint which holds the film back. There is nothing wrong with the film as such, it’s just a little middling.
The Middle Man has just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.