STATION AGENT, THE(director/writer: Thomas McCarthy; cinematographer: Oliver Bokelberg; editor: Tom McArdle; music: Stephen Trask; cast: Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), Paul Benjamin (Henry Styles), Michelle Williams (Emily), John Slattery (David), Jayce Bartok (Chris); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mary Jane Skalski/Robert May/Kathryn Tucker; Miramax Films; 2003)
“Peter Dinklage gives a priceless performance that is high in stature.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer-director Tom McCarthy’s feature debut The Station Agent was winner of both the Audience and Screenwriting awards at the Sundance Festival. It’s a brilliantly told quirky and quiet drama of three diverse misplaced persons who end up in a small rural New Jersey town and overcome their isolation to become friends. It’s a spare but compelling work that knows how to reach out affectionately to pull you into the characters yet wisely pulls back when it almost reaches too far and comes up with some corny confrontational moments. But in its examination of friendship and its dark sides, it nevertheless remains a very light and gentle tale that resonates with a convincing portrayal of all the lead characters and the search for their little truths and anguishes that make them so goofy but likable.
Fin (Peter Dinklage, Bennington College grad) is a laconic and shy 4 foot 5 dwarf, who has built a wall around himself that does not allow outsiders in because he is sensitive to always being stared at and judged by his height. The viewer is forced to see the world through Fin’s eyes, as he’s constantly singled out because of his size. His mentor and boss, Henry, is also his closest friend and runs the Golden Spike, a model-train shop in Hoboken, where Fin works repairing the trains and lives out his train obsession by attending with Henry meetings of a train club that show films the other club members experience as “train chasers” (those who take videos of a passing train from a moving car). The elderly and kindly Henry suddenly drops dead and leaves Fin in his will a longtime abandoned railway depot in the isolated New Jersey town of Newfoundland, where the former station agent both lived and worked. Since the train store closed, Fin moves into the rundown depot and hopes to lead a solitary life of fantasizing about great trains such as the Zephyr and reading books about trains and spending his leisure time as a train watcher and walking the tracks (called “walk the right of way”– taken from an old train law that gave the railroad people the right to private property to build the railroad).
The Cuban Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale) is an unbearably amiable and chatty neighbor, who for the last six weeks has run for his ailing father a food wagon on the property adjacent to the depot. Joe is a happy-go-lucky lonesome Manhattanite who feels lost in the sticks and just craves companionship to the point where he can’t be put off by rejection, as he goes out of his way to chat Fin up. But Fin just wants to be left alone and rebuffs his friendship.
Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) is a regular café con leche customer of the vendor’s hot-dog stand. She is a frazzled painter from Princeton who moved here because of hubby David, but the two are now estranged as Olivia has been traumatized since her young son died two years ago and is still grieving his loss. The middle-age woman meets the twentysomething dwarf when she’s distracted in her SUV and nearly runs him over twice in one day. Though at first put off by her call for friendship, the reluctant Fin gradually opens up when she comes calling with a bottle of bourbon. After that he finds himself regularly in the company of both Joe and Olivia. A tender awakening between Fin and Olivia occurs, though for him it sparks romance while she views him as a replacement son and only flirts with a romantic notion. She still has not gotten over her love for her hubby or forgiven him for abandoning her. Fin becomes a trusted friend and the only one Olivia is able to converse with, as she doesn’t answer her ex’s calls.
Others to contact Fin are a curious African-American elementary school student Cleo, who tests Fin’s patience by asking direct questions about his small stature and passion for trains. He doesn’t reject her and returns those questions with terse but direct replies, that wins the girl over so much she invites him to speak to her class about trains. He tells that the first train in America was Peter Cooper’s Tom Thumb in 1829. There’s also the pretty young librarian Emily, going out with the town redneck Chris, who is curious about him and trusts him enough to tell about her heavy personal problems and innocently sleeps over in the depot. Fin is looked upon as a superior human being by those who have learned to adjust to their limits and are prepared to live a very ordinary life by using their problems as something to hide behind. They seek him out believing he’s on a higher plane simply because he’s a dwarf and has learned to live independently with that handicap all his life. While he can’t help thinking of himself as a boring man with only a common man’s aspirations, someone who just wants to be treated like anyone else and allowed to be left to make his own way in life. He has a lot of anger built up inside from years of being stared at. That anger is released one night in a bar when he’s drunk, and gives the film not only its loudest shocking moment but its most unnecessary one.
Peter Dinklage gives a priceless performance that is high in stature. He carries himself with dignity throughout, and whenever the film tilts in favor of sentimentality there’s Dinklage to return it to the deadpan humorous pose that emits its genuine grace. The film shoots for a connection established by its trio of adrift characters as a victory, even if nobody’s problems get solved. But at the end of the third act, there’s a sense of relief that silence can be so golden and something as hard for adults as making new friends is accomplished. It seems fitting that the last pose is of the three outcasts happily seated together, as they look as if they are waiting for a train that they know will never come and don’t seem to care.
REVIEWED ON 11/8/2003 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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