By Adam Nayman
Tapped for a spectacularly thankless civil service gig in a dilapidated Ontario backwater, Frank (Sverre Hagen) interviews for the job in front of a panel that includes Don McKellar and Paul Gross. The Canadiana couldn’t be thicker, but as writer-director Bent Hamer actually hails from historic Sandefjord, Norway—a one-time Viking stronghold and the whaling capital of the world—The Middle Man is legible primarily as a case study in co-production. The slushy streets of Sault Ste. Marie are just nondescript enough to serve a modest, universal allegory about the psychology of shooting the messenger.
The idea here is that sadsack Frank, who lives with his mom and whose hobbies include staring into the middle distance like so many hangdog protagonists before him, has been deputized to break bad news to residents lately inured to a communal (and seemingly cosmic) run of bad luck. If that sounds like a decent premise for a deadpan festival short, it unsurprisingly proves gruelling at feature length. For most of his career, Hamer has been compared, reflexively and unfavourably, to Aki Kaurismaki; suffice to say that the latter would never italicize his existential mandate so blatantly (or get on a plane to shoot in Canada). In lieu of Kaurismaki’s knack for drawing out his characters’ melancholic essences, Hamer settles for cartooning: his scenes just sit there and harden, drab little stalactites of calcified whimsy. One happy surprise is that of all the Cancon icons in the supporting cast (Sheila McCarthy, Kenneth Welsh, a loosey, goofy Rossif Sutherland), it’s Gross who comes the closest to giving a real performance, injecting his role as the local law with just the right measure of weary, seasoned professionalism.