In writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s debut feature, The Station Agent, Peter Dinklage stars as Fin, a train enthusiast who inherits an abandoned station house in Newfoundland, New Jersey. Craving the good old fashioned peace and quiet that only a permanent rural retreat brings, Fin embraces his new property with a peculiarly stoic brand of relish and looks forward to a life of solitude right next to the railway.
Now’s probably as good a time as any to mention that Fin is a dwarf, and somewhat paradoxically his diminutive stature makes him stand out in his new home. The locals just can’t help but be fascinated by this new character and there’s a rich well of humour in Dinklage’s sardonic expressions when, for example, the shopkeeper takes a souvenir snapshot while he’s trying to buy groceries.
Fin’s polar opposite is the loud extrovert, good-intentioned but overfriendly Joe, played by Bobby Canavale. Like an enthusiastic puppy, Joe is determined to make friends with Fin, resulting in more of Dinklage’s perfectly timed sardonic expressions. This being a film, Fin is slowly won over by Joe’s clumsy attempts to make friends. But director McCarthy paces it all so perfectly, and layers it with a rich, mature sense of humour about their relationship.
There’s an absolutely perfect cinematic moment where both men are sitting on chairs outside the station house. Fin has his feet up on a bucket. When Joe attempts to position his feet on it as well, Fin gives him a disappointed look. Joe understands and retracts his feet. It’s perfect cinema because with these simple visuals McCarthy communicates everything about the two men’s relationship, yet still entertains with touch of humor.
The reason McCarthy is able to do this so simply and so effectively is that he gives his small cast plenty of screen time to establish their characters. This is one of those films where certain people will complain that “nothing happens”. It’s true, I suppose. Nothing blows up and no one single-handedly averts nuclear war. But all 88 minutes (very short by current standards) are devoted to the relationships between the central characters, and when done so expertly this has to be a good thing.
Completing the trio of lonely hearts is slightly eccentric Olivia, played wonderfully by Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson is a hugely popular actress and her performance as the recently bereaved mother whose marriage is breaking up will only gain her new admirers. The problems between her and her husband are mostly just hinted at, and it’s refreshing to see such strong emotional currency being restrained rather than milked. By not explicitly revealing all her problems, McCarthy positions the viewer with Fin. We only know what he knows and it helps you to share his concern for her and his confusion about what to do.
Olivia is the tie that initially draws the other two together. The three eventually form what can only be described as a heart-warming friendship. And while ‘heart-warming’ has become a bad word in recent years, The Station Agent isn’t heart-warming in the slushy Ron Howard sense of the word. It’s understated, and the emotions aren’t pushed right in your face. As a result, the trio’s friendship becomes genuinely and unapologetically touching.
I will always argue that any successful drama needs a good helping of comedy to help regulate the tension (and vice versa). The Station Agent performs such a beautifully conceived balancing act between the two, the result being something that is not only very funny, but also — either despite of or because of the slightly odd characters — rings very true.