Train Plotting: Cast and Script Shine in Tom McCarthy’s “The Station Agent”
by Peter Brunette
“The Station Agent” displays all the earmarks of a superb independent film: it’s got an exceptionally well-crafted script; it turns the habitual paucity of indie financial means from a disadvantage into an advantage; and it’s got indie goddess Patricia Clarkson in it. What more could one ask? It’s the kind of movie that God created Sundance to provide for us, but which is found, alas, in all too short supply even there.
The first refreshing thing about this film is that it’s concerned with a dwarf, of all things, a fascinating little man named Finbar McBride, who is played — and lived — by a talented stage and film actor named Peter Dinklage. Fin loves trains, the real ones and the toy ones, and when fate one day drops a lonely little train station in his lap — located in the outer reaches of New Jersey, no less — he goes there to live, far away, he hopes, from other people. Two other lonely souls, however, a painter named Olivia (Clarkson) who’s lost a child to an accident and a husband to a divorce, and Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a motor-mouthed hot-dog vendor who sets up shop right outside Fin’s one-room station, complicate his misanthropic plans. Together, Fin, Olivia, and Joe form the unlikeliest of threesomes, and it’s a pleasure to watch their unconventional but utterly believable friendship flourish and grow.
Writer/director Tom McCarthy, who is also a TV actor, knows how to write. While the film’s dialogue is often exquisitely subtle, he also knows when and how to make a plot point visual and thus even more sharply comic than words might. His central character is filled with rage at being treated like a freak all his life, but through most of the film he expresses this well-earned rage mostly by taking his laconic distance from his fellow human beings who want to interact with him. Olivia and Joe, as well as the local librarian Emily (Michelle Williams from “Dawson’s Creek”) and a direct and endearing young black girl (Raven Goodwin from “Lovely and Amazing”), are marvelously well-crafted secondary characters, played by actors with the chops needed to keep them completely convincing. Bobby Cannavale, less well-known than the talented Clarkson, should be especially singled out for an amazingly complex performance of a guy we simultaneously love and hate.
What is perhaps most interesting here, though, is McCarthy’s one-man stand against mainstream cinema’s greatest, most viewer-fawning sin: the absolute need to make the central character always, and immediately, LIKEABLE to the audience. Instead, Fin resists our need to love him for the longest, most welcome time, and for that alone McCarthy deserves kudos. Thematically what’s involved here is the classic pull between the need to connect with others and the fear of rejection, but McCarthy has given this old subject new life by having the audacity to re-imagine and enlarge his character pool. On a more philosophical, perhaps unintentional level, it’s fascinating to watch Dinklage PLAY a dwarf and BE a dwarf at the same time. When the ever-needy, insensitive Joe asks Fin whether he’s ever had sex with a “regular-size woman,” we can’t help but wonder how the real dwarf would answer this question. When Fin finally gets drunk in a bar and rails against the overcurious patrons who can’t help but stare at him, we wonder what everyday life must be like not for dwarves in general, but for this particular human being here, right before our eyes. It’s a delicate tension that McCarthy keeps intact by refusing to underline it. A related potential awkwardness is Fin’s sexual attraction to Emily the librarian (who is attracted to him as well), a situation that McCarthy handles with sublime discretion.
A wise man once said that a successful movie is only ever about two things: the script and the cast. Both are abundantly present in “The Station Agent,” one of the best films I’ve seen all year.