THE STATION AGENT
movie trailer (apple.com - quicktime)
NOTE: This review/spoiler was sent in by Carl Zapffe.
"The Station Agent" is a wonderful movie that rates a solid "A" in my book. Here is an original story and an engaging movie with thoughtful dialogue and complex characterizations.
My definition of an independent film is one that you cannot imagine being made by a Hollywood studio and a movie that is usually a labor of love by the creator, in this case the writer and director, Thomas McCarthy. I read somewhere that he is a close personal friend of the star, Peter Dinklage, and that he wrote this screenplay as a favor for his friend whom he thinks is a talented actor but has had little success due to his dwarfism. Well, we are all the richer for this gift on McCarthy's part to Dinklage.
This movie is a story about a person who just happens to be a dwarf but is, of course, a real life flesh and blood person who has the same needs and desires as we all do. We see the world through the eyes of his short four foot five inch stature, a world that is generally cruel and filled with ridicule at worst while at best being relentlessly and tastelessly thoughtless about someone who is different.
It would have been easy for McCarthy, and, by extension, Dinklage, to veer off to one side into sappy sentimentality or off to the other side into cynicism and bitterness. McCarthy does neither. Dinklage's Finbar McBride is a weary young man in a world who finds him an object of curiosity at best and he makes his way through it as best as he can. When an opportunity comes along to drop out of the world to take possession of a dilapidated train station in the middle of nowhere, as the estate attorney informs him, he jumps at this new chance to fade into anonymity.
In spite of his dreams to be left alone in his new life out in the boondocks of New Jersey, McBride runs into two other people who are as needy of his sociability as he is of his anonymity.
Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale) is one of those overly sociable personality types who are incapable of being alone, of being quiet for any length of time. He forces himself into McBride's orbit by happenstance as his meal on wheels cart is located next to the train station. This allows him to bribe McBride with a sociable cup of much desired hot java every morning. Likewise, depressed artist Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) keeps running McBride off the road as her station wagon keeps veering into the poor man's path as he walks from his station to the local deli. Justifiably feeling apologetic for her poor driving, she seeks out his companionship and forgiveness.
These three don't start off being friends and they aren't continuously friends throughout the movie. Each is damaged goods and their personal problems end up being tossed into the mix of their oddball relationship. Their story is messy just as life is often messy. It might be easy to surmise that McBride comes out of his shell just because he recognizes that his two new friends are just as screwed up as he is, and with much less reason for being so. And that they need help and support just as much if not more than he does.
Each starts out as an island in the sea of humanity and all end up in the safe harbor of a friendship that is mutually caring and sharing. "The Station Agent" is a superior movie filled with wonderful performances illustrating the lives of three very interesting people, all of whom any of us would love to have as friends.
It is the start of another workday, and Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) leaves his room at a boarding house in a less desirable section of New York City. He knocks at the door of another room down the hall and Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin), a tall, elderly Black man, immediately comes out of his room in a signal that this routine has been followed for many years.
He is Finbar's boss and he owns the building where they live as well as the model train hobby store on the street level where they both work. Both are train buffs and neither has much of a life outside getting together with other train buffs, perhaps to see a videotaped presentation of a train "chaser" or to view freight and passenger trains as they wind their way along the many tracks running into and through NYC.
Styles mans the front desk of the model train shop while McBride stays in the back room repairing the trains and other toys that the store's customers have dropped off to be fixed. This day is to be different, however, as he hears a loud thump from the front of the store. Henry Styles' motionless body is found lying dead on the floor when he makes it to the front.
Styles' estate attorney later informs McBride that he has been left a train station in Newfoundland, New Jersey, along with a half acre of adjacent land. "What's it like down there?" he asks. "Newfoundland is out in the middle of nowhere," the attorney, (Richard Kind), replies. This sounds good to McBride as nowhere is exactly where he would most like to be right now after having spent years living in the city where practically everyone gawks and gapes at him and a few mean-spirited jerks even throw wisecracks at him for his diminutive stature.
After finding out from a train map where Newfoundland is located, Finbar sets off for his new home by walking along the railroad tracks to get there. There is no place on earth that he would rather be than walking along railroad rights of way.
He reaches the station days later as evening approaches. He quickly notices that the station is in a rather dilapidated condition, but is still quite livable. Of course, the lights don't work and neither does the water as the place has been unoccupied for years. Finbar crashes onto a handy couch inside for some much needed rest.
The next morning he is awakened by noise nearby and discovers a young man setting up a meals on wheels cart in the parking lot next to the station. While disturbed by the proximity of someone working so close to his living space, Finbar is assuaged by the offer of a free cup of fresh java from Cuban émigré Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a personable young man who is managing the family business while his father recuperates from an illness.
Joe is fascinated by finding someone new living in the old station and pesters the reluctant tenant with questions. He is a gregarious sort who cannot sit still for a moment. He has to have something going on all the time and he has to be with other people all the time. In short, he is the very opposite of Finbar McBride, who loves nothing more than sitting down and reading a good book on trains or walking down the railroad right of way that now runs past his front door. Joe is a guy who won't take "No!" for an answer and his innate sweetness and personality slowly allays McBrides fears about him. The two learn to read together and walk down the railroad right of ways together, but it is always Joe who first breaks these precious moments of silence. Joe later even buys a handicam so that the two of them can "trainspot" together.
One of the first questions that Finbar asks Joe is the location of the local supermarket, and is informed that a small deli is located about a mile and a half away. McBride sets off for the deli by walking, of course. Soon by himself on a lonely stretch of road, he sees an approaching station wagon that is weaving all over the road. To his horror, it aims right at him and he is forced to jump into the ditch to save himself.
Soon at the deli, Finbar endures one of those many little (no pun intended!) daily indignities that dwarfs have to put up with as the owner pulls out a small camera and calls for him to pose for her as if he were there just to perform for her benefit.
After purchasing his small list of daily necessities, McBride is soon on his way home when he spies the same station wagon coming at him, now from the opposite direction. Almost unbelievably, the station wagon veers at him and he is forced once again to jump into the roadside ditch to avoid being hit. Inside the car the driver, a horrified Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), utters an epithet as she sees what she has done. She quickly slams on her breaks and jumps out of the car and rushes over to Fin to offer him her aid. Yes, he is all right, and no, certainly, no, he does not need or want a lift in her car anywhere.
These three soon form an unlikely friendship based on mutual need and respect. Fin tries to show Joe the advantages of reading and keeping quiet, along with the pleasures of their walks along the train tracks. Joe is astonished to find out that Fin will wait hours, if necessary, for the passage of the next train along a trestle over a pretty river. Well, why not? He has all the time in the world. For his part, Joe gets Fin to open up a bit and view the world with less suspicious eyes, even if he won't go to the local bar with him. Bars are definitely off the list for a dwarf like Fin. (For our part, who can forget the tastelessness, the sickness even, of those barroom dwarf tossing contests that took place back in the Eighties?)
Olivia provides the two men with attractive companionship and a car now that her driving has steadied considerably. She has been left to live in the lakeside cottage after her separation from her husband. Their separation occurred after having to deal with the emotional trauma of the death of their only son, a youngster not yet a teenager, who was killed in a freak accident while playing on a jungle gym. She loves her husband and wants him to come back to her, but, strangely enough, she can't stand to talk to him when he calls on the telephone. He instinctively knows that she is there, and curses at her because she won't pick up the phone. There is a lot of hurt here and an inability to deal with it on both sides.
Olivia is an artist of oil paintings, mostly portraits of troubled people. Her paintings fill the porch of the house, which is where she does her work when it is not sunny enough to paint outside. A friend stops by to invite her out, but she has closed herself off from any friendships formed during the period when she was married as she hates the condescension that she now receives because of her new marital situation.
One night the three of them sit out on the dock drinking and, as the sun goes down, Olivia invites them to come inside. They proceed to get further smashed, and Joe passes out on the couch. Olivia brings Fin upstairs and shows him the spare room where he can spend the night. She kisses him goodnight in a mood of quite contemplation of something possibly romantic, but that is the end of it.
The next day Olivia's soon to be ex husband shows up unannounced and walks into the house as if he were still the owner. Joe stumbles out of the couch and gives him his first shock, quickly followed by the vision of a dwarf toddling down the steps. By the time that Olivia comes down the stairs, it is clear that he is mystified beyond all possible comprehension, understandably so, as to what is going on. Olivia allays his fears if not his suspicions.
Like in much of life, two poignant and interesting personalities enter the movie as sidebar characters who both add much to the richness of this character stew.
There are several railroad cars that have been abandoned on the siding next to the station. Two cabooses and a passenger car rest there in slow decay, and Fin has examined all of them in clinical detail as to their age and ownership and place of origin. One morning he hears some quiet singing emanating from the passenger car, and he discovers Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a young, chubby Black girl playing by herself inside the car. They eye each other warily, then in curiosity, and finally i acceptance as each is about the same size as the other. Cleo accepts Fin without question or reservation, and she soon invites him to speak about trains at her grade school class. This is, naturally, the last thing that Fin wants to do, which is to place himself once again in the hated public eye, and at a lecture forum, no less.
Early on in the movie while sitting at the little dining table placed daily next to Joe's meals on wheels truck, Fin wants to read and Joe won't shut up. Fin decides that the only solution is to go to the local library to get him a book, perhaps one about trains. Joe has offered to be quiet if he has something to read. Well, this is only a partial success, as the voluble Joe still cannot keep quiet for more than a few minutes, but at least that is a few minutes more than before.
The librarian at this small country outpost of erudition is a very comely young lady named Emily (Michelle Williams), who quickly sees in Fin a strength and a maturity that she is not used to seeing in the other men around town, most particularly in her immature boyfriend of the moment, Chris (Jayce Bartok). She finds Fin to be a very sexy man, and, of course, he is with his strong masculine face and its rugged features. It is obvious that she would love to bed him if she could, but Fin will have none of it. She's too young and, besides, he doesn't want sex out of pity or curiosity.
Fin can't rent the book on his first visit since he has yet to establish legal residence at the station, so Joe rents his own book for him, which he will now try to read while Fin is reading. Fin eventually does establish proof of his residency, so he gets his own library card, which is nice as he is often at the library. It is clear on his every visit that Emily really enjoys his company.
One day she confesses to Fin that she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Chris, and has yet to tell him. Fin takes a strangely protective attitude towards this new mother to be, especially when an angry Chris turns up waiting for her after she has closed the library. He tries to keep the inebriated Chris away from Emily, but Chris pushes him away as if he were a rag doll. Ashamed of his manhood and his stature, Fin walks away feeling useless and unhelpful with Emily cursing Chris in the background, calling him a "Jerk."
This is one night that getting drunk at the local saloon is in order, and Fin does just that, drinking by himself until Emily surprisingly turns up and sits down next to him.
They share a few drinks together and later when it is time to go, she asks Fin if she can see his new home. Drunk enough to have lost some of his earlier inhibitions, Fin replies in the affirmative. Emily would like more, but she settles for a night spent sleeping on the couch while Fin fits himself comfortably into the station's bathtub for a night's rest.
Olivia has spurned her husband's efforts at reconciliation too often as one night he calls her once again. She still doesn't answer her telephone, but the message left devastates her anyway. His girlfriend in Princeton where they now live is pregnant and he is going to be a father again. She angrily spurns Fin's friendship and withdraws into her shell. Fin waits outside her home day after day and sees little sign of activity. Concerned, he breaks into the house and finds Olivia collapsed on the floor of her bathroom, near death from an overdose of prescription drugs.
Some time later, Joe and Fin wait patiently in the hospital for their favorite patient to be released. They are only too happy to take her home and nurse her back to health.
Fin started off as a community of one early on that first dark evening, and now he is already part of a community of five. Still there are those looks that he receives from the other locals, so one night after drinking too much at the local watering hole, he gets up on the bar and shouts to all in a loud voice, "Look at me! Look at me! Here I am!" as if to say, "Take your looks now and leave me alone later."
The pain of being different may never go away, but at least now he has his friends who accept him for who he is. The three of them lounge late one warm summer afternoon on Olivia's porch drinking a cool beer, and Joe jokes that maybe Fin ought to check out that "Hottie" at the library. They have come a long way to look beyond the surface to the neat guy who has remained hidden underneath for far too long. There's a big man housed that small body.