Buena Vista // 2003 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // August 23rd, 2004
"It's funny how different people see me and treat me, when really I'm just a simple, boring person."
Writer/director Tom McCarthy and his fabulous ensemble cast brought the 2003 Sundance crowd to their feet with this touching tale of isolation and connection.
Train-obsessed Fin (Peter Dinklage, Elf), a dwarf who quietly endures taunts and stares because of his size, inherits an abandoned railway depot and moves to the tiny town of Newfoundland, New Jersey, in a bid to withdraw from society. However Joe, a lonely and garrulous hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale, The Bone Collector), persists in overtures of friendship, and a grieving artist named Olivia (Patricia Clarkson, Miracle) crashes Fin's solitary life. Almost against his will, Fin becomes drawn into the lives of the people around him and finds he wants to break out of his self-imposed isolation after all.
The Station Agent is a character-driven masterpiece, drawing the audience into its world until the credits roll. The movie is touching without being sentimental, displaying a core of humor and humanity as it charts the progress of three people tentatively becoming a community of strangers.
Early scenes of Fin show kids cracking jokes about Snow White, a store clerk snapping his picture, and men calling "Da plane! Da plane!" when he passes, making it understandable why he wants to avoid human interaction. Fin isn't shy, and he's alone but not lonely -- he's deliberately shut himself off from human contact. His bluntness borders on the rude, however, and it's his good fortune that Joe is unable to take a hint:
Joe: "If you guys do something later, can I come?"
Fin: "We're not going to do something later."
Joe: "Yah, but if you do, can I come?"
Fin: "We're not going to do something later."
Joe: "Yah, but if you do...?"
Fin: (Pause) "OK" (closing the door in Joe's face)
Joe is as talkative as Fin is silent, but finds himself stuck in his ailing father's hot dog stand in the train station's deserted parking lot. His momentary surprise at Fin's size is replaced by relief that he now has a neighbor to talk to, whether Fin wants to or not. Cannavale does a nice job of making Joe likeable rather than annoying, and he's often the comedic sunshine to Fin's gloom.
Olivia enters Fin's life by almost running over him -- twice -- and apologizing with a bottle of bourbon that fuels her disclosure that she is separated from her husband and mourning her dead son. Patricia Clarkson is wonderful, as always, and radiates a fragility and sensuality that attracts both men.
The three form a delicate friendship. There is subtle competition for her attention, and some male bonding, but it's all about finding ways to connect, not about sex or romance.
Fin came to their world to escape, but Olivia and Joe enter his through his one love: trains. They begin by accompanying him when he "walks the right of way" along the railroad tracks, and later, they combine to give him the gift of "train chasing" -- speeding alongside a train, videotaping it for posterity. It's only when Fin is faced with losing their friendship that he realizes he doesn't want to go back to his solitary life.
Towards the end, events seem rushed compared to the deliberately slow pace of what comes before. All the action seems condensed into several quick scenes, which is slightly jarring in a movie that is generally driven by character rather than plot. But by the final scene, we are absorbed by the characters again and all is forgiven.
The supporting cast is exceptional. The local librarian is played by Michelle Williams of Dawson's Creek...but don't judge her on that. She is affecting and sexy here as a woman who screams in surprise on first meeting Fin, but is drawn to him and eventually attracted to him as well. Raven Goodwin is another strong presence as a child who befriends Fin, and whose direct curiosity Fin accepts gracefully.
One of the greatest feats of both the script and of Dinklage's performance is that after the opening scenes, Fin's dwarfism is incidental.
"So do you people have clubs or something?" Joe asks Fin early on, and Olivia -- and the audience -- cringe at the tactlessness of the question.
"What do you mean?" Fin responds.
"Like a train of the month club?" Joe continues.
Dinklage has the charisma, looks, and talent of a leading man, none of which are diminished by his small stature. The script's theme of alienation is universal enough that Fin's size becomes simply another device to explore it, along with Joe's distance from his friends and responsibility to his father, and Olivia's grief and separation from her husband.
For a film shot on a minimal budget in 20 days on 16mm film, the technical aspects are impressive, and in fact the resulting rough look and slightly muted colors suit the rural, train-station sensibility. The DVD transfer is fine, with some slight edge enhancement. The sound is serviceable but not stellar -- it's a dialogue-heavy movie with very little to test your prized sound system.
There is also a decent but not extensive slate of extras, with commentary and deleted scenes. The commentary includes director McCarthy and the three leads chatting with easy camaraderie. Their teasing banter reveals a bond that wasn't created by a studio PR firm. Some of the more memorable moments include behind-the-scenes stories like that of a crew member getting busted for filming on railroad property without permission.
The deleted scenes are available with commentary as well, this time minus Clarkson. Sadly, the movie commentary teases with the revelation that many more deleted scenes were not included, including an alternate ending.
The Station Agent is only 88 minutes long, but it's packed with emotion. The sparsity of the script is a strength, but it relies on a superb leading actor who can convey complex emotions with few words. McCarthy found just that in Dinklage, an actor known for his rants in Living in Oblivion and Elf. With a flicker of an eyebrow or a terse "yeah," Dinklage expresses stoicism, vulnerability, humor, pain, and -- in one memorable scene -- rage. With Clarkson, Cannavale, and the supporting cast, the performances make the film.
All accomplices are guilty of creating a memorable, meaningful movie. Go along for the ride with this indelible group of characters.
Review content copyright © 2004 Diane Wild; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
Studio: Buena Vista
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director and cast commentary
* Deleted scenes
* Official Site