"The Station Agent" is one of those quintessentially sweet, slice-of-life movies that Hollywood shuns because nobody dies violently and nothing gets blown up. But independent, first-time writer/director Tom McCarthy managed to make it on a shoestring and entertain more than a few viewers. When it's working, which is most of the time, it's a charming, feel-good picture. When it's not working? Well, no one who sees it will probably remember the bad times.
The main character in the story is Finbar McBride, a dwarf. At 4'5" he's learned to get along by himself for thirty-odd years and ignore the taunts and jokes about his size. This doesn't help his social life much, though, as he appears to have few or no friends. He lives alone in a small apartment in New Jersey and works in a model railroad shop. Trains are apparently his only passion. He "walks the right of way," as it's called, trekking down the tracks for relaxation, and he sometimes attends meetings of a local club of like-minded individuals who share pictures of trains and watch home movies they've taken of trains. Fin can't contribute any films, though, because he has no camera.
Then, his whole life changes. His boss dies, leaving him without a job, but in his will the boss leaves him a parcel of land and an old, abandoned train station in Newfoundland, NJ. As the attorney handling the will says, the place is in the middle of nowhere. But it's a beautiful, woodsy, small-town nowhere, and Fin has no choice but head in that direction, where he hopes to be left to himself for some peace and quiet.
Not so. He no sooner arrives at the station than he meets two people who steadfastly won't let him alone. The first is Joe Oramas, a young Manhattanite staying in Newfoundland to take care of his ailing father and run his dad's hotdog stand; and the second is Olivia Harris, an early middle-aged artist who almost runs Fin over in her SUV, twice. Joe's stand is right next to the train station, and Joe is so gregarious he strikes up a one-sided conversation almost immediately. Fin's requests to be left to himself go unheeded by the sociable Joe. Olivia, on the other hand, feels badly about almost hitting Fin with her car and tries to make up for it by visiting him and bringing him a housewarming gift. Again, Fin tries to ward her off, but she is persistent.
Fin isn't just lonely and aloof. He's angry and paranoid. He thinks he's used to people's insults by now, the mockery of children and bigots mainly, who stare at him and laugh behind his back, but he's not. He hates it. He also feels that everyone in the world is gaping and laughing at him, which isn't so. As a result, he won't even go into a restaurant or tavern for fear of ridicule. He really doesn't know how to handle the two new folks in his life who appear to look past his diminutive height. Nor does he understand why a little ten-year-old girl, Cleo, wants to befriend him, either, or the town's young, unmarried librarian, Emily.
Fin is played by Peter Dinklage, an actor who says that for a little person a starring role like this one comes along only once in a lifetime. I hope it's not the only time. He's a remarkable performer, conveying a wealth of emotion with a look of the eye. In Dinklage's portrayal, Fin is alternately shy, distant, indignant, kind, strong, gallant, and ultimately cordial. It's a well-rounded performance. Joe is played by Bobby Cannavale as an open, joyous type, who won't take no for an answer. It's hard to say exactly why Joe is so determined to strike up a friendship with Fin and basically ignore Fin's pleas for solitude except that Joe is a basically friendly guy, we and (eventually) Fin are glad he does. Olivia is played by Patricia Clarkson as an intellectual bohemian of sorts and a sympathetic observer. She has a lot more going on in her life than meets the eye. The supporting roles of Emily and Cleo are well handled, too, by Michelle Williams and Raven Goodwin.
The film's cinematography, employing far more long shots than we would expect to find in so personal a drama, provides a nice sense of isolation for the characters, and the musical score by Stephen Trask is breezy and serene. The camera work and the music suitably complement the story as we follow the various characters and their eventual attachments to one another--walking the right of way, chasing trains, having a beer, sitting around reading, and generally hanging out together. The movie offers a series of engaging sequences as we see all of them bond and Fin finally break loose from the shell he's built around himself. If, in fact, that had been all there was to it, the film might have been even more appealing.
But that's not all there is. There is much the film doesn't tell us or doesn't explain about the characters and a sequence at the end that we didn't need at all, matters that tend to keep the picture from being entirely successful. For instance, we're never told just why a smart, good-looking man like Fin, little person or no, would have become so very resentful of the world. He is clearly intelligent, rational, mild-mannered, and always gracious, if not accommodating. Surely, the film is not trying to imply that most people of his unusual physical attributes are this belligerent or this unhappy. Then, there's the question of Fin's income. He can't have made much money at the hobby store and all of his belongings fit into a single suitcase, yet when he goes to Newfoundland and takes up residence at the train station, with no means of support, it seems he's going to live there forever doing nothing. He tells people he's retired. At his age? On what? How will he live? No answers. Moreover, we are led to believe that Fin has gone through most of his life alone, yet within hours of his arriving in Newfoundland he's got people everywhere wanting to be his friend. Only in the movies, I guess.
Worse, toward the end of the film, writer/director McCarthy seems determined that no story should be without its dark clouds. Into every life a little rain must fall, that business. Thus, he adds a melodramatic episode concerning the librarian, who reveals that she's pregnant out of wedlock, and another one concerning Olivia, who reveals that she's recently separated from her husband and that she's just lost her son and that she's on the verge of committing suicide and, and, and.... We could have done without any of this.
Taken as a fable, however, I suppose none of these questions matter. It's the movie's thought that counts: The idea that everyone should live and let live; that no one should be judged on appearances; that it's what's on the inside that counts, like Fin's good heart, once he opens it to others. Just watching these friends interact is what the movie is about, not what they look like, not what they do, not what they talk about, but how they feel toward one another. As I say, it's a sweet, humorous drama. Incidentally, it's ridiculously rated R for a couple of dirty words. Ignore the rating.
The technical specs on this film at IMDb say it was filmed in 16 mm, but the results belie any doubts about its video quality. It's quite good, in fact, measuring an anamorphic ratio about 1.74:1 across a normal television screen. The bit rate is relatively high, so the color depth is solid. The overall image is a little dark, but it's fairly rich, with strong object delineation, no digital artifacts, and little unwanted grain.
Although there isn't much for the rear channels to do in this Dolby Digital 5.1 production, the front channels are clear and clean. There is a sharp definition to the sound and a crisp transient response. The result is perfect for the dialogue necessary to the story and adds a dash of verisimilitude to things like passing trains, cars, and water. It's a little film; expect subtle sound.
Appropriate to a small-budget film, the DVD has a small number of extras. The usual audio commentary accompanies the movie, this one with director Tom McCarthy and actors Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale. They're a friendly team. Then there are five deleted scenes, with or without the team's further remarks. These scenes are very brief, but the alternate, extended ending is worth investigating. The package concludes with twenty-one scene selections; some Sneak Peek trailers for other Buena Vista films but not for this one; English and French spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
"The Station Agent" was made for a little over half a million dollars, a piddling sum by current Hollywood standards, and brought back almost six million, something like a tenfold profit. Six mill is still small potatoes, to be sure, hardly enough to cover a month's dry-cleaning bill for most Hollywood producers, but it shows what can be done if a film is made with even a modicum of sense and sensitivity.
The characters in "The Station Agent" are engaging, the theme is uplifting, the countryside is delightful, and the whole picture is a warm and cozy affair that only dedicated curmudgeons could dislike. Still, nobody dies violently and nothing gets blown up. Maybe that limits its audience right there.