By: Jeff Ching
The Middle Man takes place in the fictional town of Karmack, USA. Of every fictional city I’ve seen in the movies, Karmack is the last place I would ever want to live.
The art directors and cinematographers have fun with making everything about this ghost town look like an ugly hell hole. Can you recall that rom-com trope of a character who lives a soulless corporate life in the big city then returns to their humble hometown to re-discover themselves? That would never happen in this town. Oh, and one last thing I forgot to mention about Karmack: life sucks so much, that people die very frequently and easily – in very random accidents. It’s no wonder that one of the most high-profile jobs is known as “the middle man”: the bearer of bad news, who informs families of the deaths of their loved ones. The story is about Frank (Pål Sverre Hagen), who went through a long bout of unemployment and is now thrilled to become the new middle man. Little does he know what kind of hellaciously bonkers journey the job is about to put him through; on the same token, little did I know what kind of totally bonkers experience I was about to sit through, when I was asked to review this movie.
I was a little worried when I watched the trailer. It was devoid of laughs and I couldn’t quite see how the movie’s absurd premise could work without a dark comedy approach. I’m happy to say that my fears were quelled roughly 8 minutes in, when Frank decides to celebrate his new job by going to a butcher shop to buy an overpriced T-bone steak, from quite possibly the worst butcher who would never get hired in any other town. It’s hard to put into words what it was about this scene, but it had me laughing so hard. And just like that, my fears about this movie were gone. I was fully onboard.
Directed and co-written by Bent Hamer (1001 Grams), The Middle Man has a meandering structure and its fair share of tonal whiplash. But, I can also say that I was captivated from beginning to end. There were multiple times where I had to pick my jaw up off the ground, while laughing in disbelief. There is no way to predict where this story will go, what type of insanity will happen, and even what kind of emotional state the movie will lead you into. While not everything worked for me (still torn on how I feel about its ending), you can never accuse the movie of being trite, generic, or playing it safe. It can go from absurd comedy to heart-wrenchingly tragic within minutes. The movie presents its protagonist with some moral conundrums and asks what you might do in those types of life and death situations.
I’ve seen some people compare this to the Coen Brothers, but a comparison I like better is to the criminally underrated dark comedy The Death of Dick Long, directed by one-half of The Daniels (Everything Everywhere All At Once), which was my pick for the best movie of 2019. Both trailers seem like they may be Coen Brothers light, but oooh boy, you have no idea what you’re in for.
I’m sure The Middle Man was meant to be viewed allegorically, but I’m not much of a metaphor decipherer. I’ll just say that, at face value, it’s an eccentric, insane, shocking, wild ride that’s unlike anything else out there. The Middle Man was a collaboration between Norway, Germany, Denmark, and Canada (always happy to see Don Mckellar); a collaboration you don’t see every day, delivering a movie you sure as hell don’t see every day.
I don’t know how big of an audience The Middle Man will find. It may be too weird for some, but for those of you that complain about the lack of originality in most movies, give this one a shot. I feel like this is a movie that will be committed to my memory for good.
Final rating: **** (out of 5)
Read more of Jeff Ching’s thoughts on film at The Ching of Comedy’s blog.