say your piece
155 30 OCTOBER 2003
Vivid Characters Find Unlikely Friendship in 'The Station Agent'
By Jeremy Mathews

Peter Dinklage plays one lonely dwarf in "The Station Agent."

“The Station Agent”
Miramax Films
Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy
Produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski and Kathryn Tucker
Starring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Benjamin, Raven Goodwin, Michelle Williams, John Slattery and Jo Lo Truglio
Rated R
(out of four)

“The Station Agent” observes friendship between three distinct people in need of human contact. At first sight it’s an unlikely combination—a dwarf, a painter and a coffee wagon operator—but each character is seeking human connection, admittedly or not.

A wrong-headed film would treat the topic too somberly or would have turned it into an “Odd Couple”-style sitcom. But writer/director Thomas McCarthy looks at his characters with lively humor, making the characters seem real and the tragedies more palpable.

Peter Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a train enthusiast from Hoboken, N.J., who inherits an old, closed, small-town train station after the death of his only apparent friend, a model-train shop owner with whom he works. Before Fin’s friend dies, they go to a train enthusiasts’ meeting to watch the film of a train-chaser explaining very obvious things like the bellowing smoke and a dark tunnel (“one of the darkest tunnels in Canada”). Even the two train lovers know it’s boring.

This is the extent of Fin’s social life, as other train-obsessed folks are the only ones he can spend time with. Fin is a dwarf, and has learned to avoid people since they don’t know how to act around him. They stare as he walks through the streets. He knows that if they’re not already whispering, they’ll be talking about him once he’s out of sight. His defense is to spend his life alone.

Things don’t seem to be different in the new town, Newfoundland, N.J., where a woman at the convenience store pulls out her camera to take a picture when he comes in.

Fin spends most of his time walking the right of way (on the railroad track) and reading, until unrelenting people impose themselves on him.

Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) makes her first and second impressions on Fin by accidentally swerving her car and almost hitting him twice in one day. Dinklage deadpans Fin’s negative answer when Olivia tries to apologize by offering him a ride.

She then takes him a bottle of brandy to apologize. A bit drunk, she reveals that she divorced her husband after the accidental death of their 8-year-old son, then falls asleep.

Clarkson won a special award at last year’ Sundance Film Festival for her fine work in this film, “All the Real Girls” and “Pieces of April.” “The Station Agent” is the strongest of all those performances, often requiring a cheerful exterior or a happy moment to be haunted by the tragedy of her son’s death.

The outgoing Joe (Bobby Cannavale) operates his sick father’s coffee wagon outside the station. In town from New York for the last six weeks, Joe is restless and constantly chatty, with plenty of time to talk since an abandoned train station isn’t the most happening place to buy coffee.

Fin, on the other hand, is steadfastly determined not to say anything more than is asked of him, including introducing himself. He and Joe together make for great interaction. Fin refuses to go to a bar with Joe, then answers that he doesn’t like bars, admits he likes beer when asked, but refuses Joe’s offer to bring a six-pack over. He’s going to go to a walk—and prefers to walk alone.

Fin is remarkable in his refusal of company, but his defenses slowly weaken as Joe executes an interaction assault. After seeing Olivia leaving the station the morning after the brandy episode and labeling Fin a stud, he gets even worse.

These characters are lonely in different ways, and experience different positions on each other’s privacy as the film progresses. Sometimes friends need to visit friends, even those who say they don’t want to see anyone. McCarthy shows that it isn’t easy, but sometimes is necessary to connect.

Dinklage, whose work includes the memorable sharp dwarf actor in “Living in Oblivion,” is fantastic in the film, and it’d be a loss if he continues to only receive roles that require characters to be dwarves. He could slip into any role. As Fin, he’s not too dour, not too witty—just a man slowly learning that while privacy is nice, it's necessary to let other people into your life as well.

“The Station Agent” won the audience award at Sundance without a stunning epic story, and not much of a conventional story at all, but because its characters are smart, funny and touching. It reminds us of friends and ourselves, and it’s nice to see those people realize what they love to do in life.

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