The Middle Man: this morbid, mordant comedy plumbs the psychosis of the Trump era

The poverty-stricken midwestern town of Karmack has a death rate so high, the new post of ‘middle man’ – the bearer of bad news – is created. But in this blackly funny film, austerity and ‘accidents’ are not entirely unrelated.

Pål Sverre Hagen (left) as Frank Farrelli in The Middle Man (2021)

Adapted by its director Bent Hamer from Lars Saabye Christensen’s 2012 novel Sluk, The Middle Man is set during the Trump administration in the fictional Midwestern town of Karmack – a once flourishing community that has of late been suffering severe economic depression, and whose residents have been victim to an unusually high rate of injuries and deaths. These are officially deemed accidents, although other factors – poor infrastructure, psychological despair, foul play – also contribute. The Town Hall creates the new post of ‘middle man’ to assist the town’s overwhelmed sheriff (Paul Gross), doctor (Don McKellar) and priest (Nicolas Bro) with the delicate task of breaking the bad news to the victims’ loved ones.

In his interview for the job at the film’s outset, Frank Farrelli (Pål Sverre Hagen) illustrates his suitability with an anecdote of how he was the one who had to tell his mother (Nina Andresen Borud) of his father’s death. As Frank explains that his father fell from a low ladder onto a scythe, and adds in a strange tone, “His head cracked open like an egg,” it’s hard to tell whether he is laughing or crying (although he insists to the panel that he never cries). This equivocal response sets the tone for a film that casts people’s darkest moments in a blackly comic register, with cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund’s mid and wide shots capturing Karmack’s grief from a distance that amplifies the deadpan absurdities.

Frank gets the job, starts a relationship with his secretary Blenda (Tuva Novotny), and begins gradually to find his own two feet away from his mother – but as the accidents start getting ever closer to home, our protagonist questions his own place in the causal chain. “Why can’t anyone just straight-out say, ‘I’m guilty. It’s me’?”, the sheriff will ask after a barroom incident leaves Frank’s best friend Steve (Rossif Sutherland) in a coma – and no matter how much Frank may, as middle man, get to choose his euphemisms and his evasive consolations in imparting news of the most intimate of tragedies, there is guilt aplenty to go around and the truth must eventually out.

Shot in Ontario, Canada and parts of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, and with Norwegian actors making up half its cast, The Middle Man shows the dreamy artifice behind the MAGA yearning for past prosperity. Here, very real brokenness and misery are refashioned as individual psychosis and collective fiction, and responsibility as something to be escaped. “Sometimes I wonder,” Frank muses, “what are accidents really?” Hamer reframes that question in unexpected and increasingly disturbing ways.

The Middle Man is in UK cinemas now.