If you saw The Station Agent when it was released in 2003, you know how special it is. This was Writer-Director Tom McCarthy’s first feature. He has followed up with two strong films since, The Visitor (2008) and Win Win (2011), writing and directing both, as well as having a story credit for the great Disney/Pixar animated feature Up (2009). I remember how surprised I was when I found out that he was the same Tom McCarthy I’d been seeing as an actor in many films, such as Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Flags of Our Fathers, The Lovely Bones, and especially the HBO series The Wire in it’s fifth and final season. This was also the film that gave Peter Dinklage what’s been described as his breakout role. His performance received many award nominations and wins, as did the film itself. He’s currently in the excellent HBO series Game of Thrones, where his character, Tyrion Lannister, has emerged as the star of the show, as well as winning him an Emmy and Golden Globe for the first season.
The Station Agent is a beautiful study of three people, each alone and alienated in his or her own way, whose paths cross in a lazy, wayward town in New Jersey where little seems to happen. Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage), is a dwarf with a love of trains who has inherited a deserted railway station in Newfoundland, NJ from his employer at a model train shop in Hoboken.
Fin says little, is monosyllabic when he does, and is only too happy to keep to himself. Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) is an artist – a painter – living alone in a large house, mourning the accidental death of her young son and the break-up of her marriage. Joe Oramas (a terrific Bobby Cannavale) is a young Cuban guy from New York who is running his father’s donut & coffee van while the father recovers from an illness.
It’s Joe who gets the ball rolling as he tries to connect with Olivia, who buys coffee from him every day, and newcomer Fin, who is living in the nearby abandoned station. They both initially resist Joe’s motor-mouth personality.
Also figuring into the story are Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a young black girl who gets to know Fin and eventually breaks down his resistance to talking about trains when she persuades him to speak to her high school class, and Emily (Michelle Williams), the pretty town librarian who becomes Fin’s friend, and maybe his girlfriend.
The story is driven by character rather than plot. Scenes seems to drift from one to the next in a very quiet, understated way. It’s all very simple and spare, but I found the effect to be quite powerful. The character of Fin, and the performance of Peter Dinklage, solidly anchor the film. His face reveals little emotion, particularly at first, but we read it in his eyes. His life-long frustration at being defined by his dwarfism in most people’s eyes is obvious, but what’s great here is that none of the main characters mention it at all; it’s a non-issue for them.
Fin is a gentle, dignified, and decent man, and there’s something heroic about him, though he starts off wrapped pretty tight. The film touches on what I think is a very universal human need and desire to connect with other people. This is present throughout the film, the subtext of nearly every scene, and is occasionally felt in raw and heartbreaking moments. That said, The Station Agent avoids the sentimentality that could have been brought out by less subtle and creative filmmakers. There is drama and conflict, but it feels real and uncontrived, and things are not necessarily resolved or otherwise neatly wrapped up in a Hollywood feel-good way at the end. Though I certainly did “feel good” when it was over, a feeling I think was honestly earned by the film.
The values of friendship, respect, loyalty and love, are presented here in a very powerful way. The positive difference these characters make in each other’s lives, by reaching out, even if initially rebuffed, has an almost spiritual quality.
The following trailer conveys the tone of the film pretty well.
The Station Agent is available via Neflix and for sale at Amazon.com for the ridiculously low price of $6.99. If you haven’t seen it, you probably should. If you have, see it again. – Ted Hicks