Is actor-turned-writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s debut work, The Station Agent, really as good as has been said? Probably not, though it is a good-hearted film that makes some keen — and pertinent — comments on the human condition. It’s also remarkably well-made, turning its obvious paucity of budget into a plus.
I’ve heard a lot of comments that the film doesn’t really “go” anywhere; to some extent, that’s true — though “going” anywhere in the normal sense is not what the movie is all about. In its own way and on its own terms, The Station Agent arrives at exactly the destination it set out for.
McCarthy has crafted an unusual story where the only real point lies in the impact his characters have on each other; it’s hardly what you’d call “action-packed.” Rather, it’s emotion-packed (though in a generally minor key). The film tells the story of Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage, Elf), a gloomy, self-contained dwarf whose only interest is trains — both real ones, and models. “Fin” even works in a model-train shop called the Golden Spike. (Is it merely coincidental that the Golden Spike is located right next door to the Scissorhands Salon, considering that the film’s theme in part centers on obsessions that don’t make any sense to others who don’t share them, and the plight of those who are in some way different — very typical themes in Tim Burton films?)
Fin’s only friend is store-owner Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin, The Breaks), who shares Fin’s passions, and seems to have a similarly detached outlook on life. When Henry suddenly drops dead, Fin discovers that he’s inherited a deserted train depot in Newfoundland, N.J., and sets out to claim the place as his own. In a touch of unforced fantasy, Fin appears to walk to his new home, which turns out to be a very rundown little building (somewhat improbably featuring a kitchen and a full bath). The station appears to be in the middle of nowhere, except that Fin — much to his consternation — has a “neighbor,” Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale, The Bone Collector).
For reasons not explained by the film, Joe parks his mobile hotdog stand across from the station. The exact opposite of Fin, Joe is anything but self-contained — and no matter how abrupt Fin tries to be with him Fin, Joe insists on foisting his friendship on the newcomer.
Into this mix comes middle-aged Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson, All the Real Girls), separated from her husband and mourning the death of her son. Olivia becomes connected with Fin primarily because of her lack of driving skills (she nearly runs him over twice). And there’s also a forthright little girl named Cleo (Raven Goodwin, Lovely and Amazing), and the town’s young librarian, Emily (Michelle Williams, TV’s Dawson’s Creek). What do these people have in common? Not much except for their insistence on not letting Fin keep to himself.
With the death of his only friend in the world, Fin finds himself inheriting something more than a run-down train station — he now has a world of human interaction for the first time in his life. So what happens? In a literal sense, nothing much. In a broader sense, the film examines Fin’s journey into the “real world,” and the impact he has on it — and it on him.
With very rare — and not wholly successful — bouts of melodrama, The Station Agent is content to track this journey in an unforced and completely believable manner, allowing us to really get to know these people and their peculiarities — and to care about them.
Though as far removed from flashiness as possible, The Station Agent nonetheless boasts an enchanting look: Director McCarthy proves adept at isolating the best — or at least the most interesting — aspects of his typically outside locations, creating a beautifully separate world as he explores his characters’ own sense of isolation, and their slow bonding. Backed by a quirky score by Stephen Trask (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) — which even utilizes that most underused of instruments, the saw) — the film manages to be constantly appealing both aurally and visually.
McCarthy’s script is very clever in its dissection of the pitfalls of language, illustrating how it’s often easy to find an insult where none is intended. At one key moment, Olivia innocently asks Fin, “Do you people have clubs?” For a moment, both the viewer and Fin are shocked into silence by this apparent insensitivity, only to find that by “you people,” she actually means train enthusiasts, not dwarves. It’s a lovely touch in a movie full of them.
The pacing of later scenes seemed a little off to me, and the film never addresses such workaday issues as what Fin does for money once he loses his job at the Golden Spike (indeed, the incomes of the three main characters remain mysterious). But enough of The Station Agent works to make this a must-see — an unusual, provocative, sweet-tempered film that stays with you long after.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke