The Station Agent
directed by Thomas McCarthy
(Miramax, 2003)

Finbar McBride's disinterest in the human race was matched only by his passions for trains.

He lived by the Hoboken railroad yards and worked at the Golden Spike, a model train shop run by his only friend, Henry Styles -- until Henry (Paul Benjamin) collapsed at work one day and left Fin (Peter Dinklage) his most valuable possession, a piece of land in the New Jersey outback containing what's left of the Newfoundland, N.J., train station.

It's there Fin meets Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban-American Manhattanite who's in Newfoundland to run his father's trackside concession van while dad recovers from an illness that's never described in any detail, and Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), an attractive and intelligent if slightly off-the-mark middle-aged artist who retreated to a "getaway" home in Newfoundland after the accidental death of her young son and her estrangement from her husband (Jayce Bartok).

Now as complications go, those are pretty good. But there are a few more that weigh heavily on the action of The Station Agent. Finbar McBride -- yes, that the character's real name -- is a dwarf, and he doesn't think much of dwarf jokes or those who tell or appear inclined to tell them.

And that provides the spark that fires up the engines of Station Agent, the 2003 independent film written and directed by Thomas McCarthy that took home a trainload of awards from Sundance and generated a fair amount of buzz even on the general-release circuit.

Fin, as he's called, doesn't have much of a social life, and he's determined to keep it that way. In fact, his first few conversations with Joe, whose van is parked just outside Fin's door, are more like exercises in how not to communicate, and McCarthy captures them as such.

Even later, as Fin allows Joe to edge into his life, the theme of communication remains dominant, as Joe refuses to stop pushing the envelope and Fin struggles to get his good-hearted but gregarious companion back into the small opening he's been allowed.

Olivia's entrance into their tenuous relationship serves only to further complicate the complications, and once again McCarthy seems to have a real handle on how hard it is for people who don't socialize well to break down barriers they've created to protect themselves. At times, Station Agent seems like an extended study in discomfort.

Much of this is handled visually, with McCarthy using very flat, straight-on shots -- the kind photographers are carefully trained to avoid -- to capture the awkwardness of the trio's shared activities, especially Fin's walking tours of the local rail lines. These -- and perhaps the snippets of nonconversation he manages to capture -- provide the funniest moments in Station Agent. And there's no shortage of them.

The drama, on the other hand, is derived from a fairly honest look at what happens when people who've been living defensively all their lives begin to open up. McCarthy and his cast are just as good here, though, to be honest, the director could have given them a stronger ending.

But please, let's leave the peccadilloes for lesser fare.

Station Agent is a warm film, full of real, if rarely seen, acts of human compassion and glimpses into the lives of people just beyond our radar screens. It's meant to be bitten off in large chunks, consumed in large quantities and savored 'til the flavor cools. That takes some doing, but it's well worth the effort.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 22 January 2005

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