The Station Agent (2003)

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy

“Here I am! Take a look!”

The Disc

Hey, it’s the first Late Review of an ex-rental disc! Bought in a video shop (remember them?!), as part of a three for a tenner deal (or £3.95 each). I have no idea when I bought this though, it’s been on the shelf so long it practically is the shelf.

Fairly standard, if low-key extras though – a commentary and five deleted scenes.

Why Did I Get This?

I might’ve picked it up simply to make up the numbers in the three for £10 deal, and I certainly wasn’t aware of any of the stars or the writer/director at the time – this was way before Peter Dinklage became the Game Of Thrones superstar he is today.

That being said, I remember him being brilliant and very melancholy but think there was a surprising lightness to the film – as suggested by the cover, which looks like your standard frothy comedy.

Someone I loaned it to many years ago returned it and told me “it’s definitely a you film”. I was never entirely sure what they meant, and have chosen to take it as a complement…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include details from throughout the film which could be considered spoilers. If you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading.

The Station Agent tells the story of Fin (Peter Dinklage), a young railway enthusiast who works at a model train store with his friend Henry (Paul Benjamin). When Henry dies, he leaves Fin some land and property – a former railway station – in rural New Jersey.

We’re introduced to Fin as he stands smoking on the roof of his apartment building, smartly dressed in shirt and tie, watching the trains below and checking the time on his pocket watch before heading to work. From the off, he barely says a word, even to his friend, but there’s a depth to that friendship that means he doesn’t have to. Welcomed with “Morning, professor”, as they head to the shop, and sharing silent jokes about their fellow railway enthusiasts, it’s clear the pair are fond of each other.

Within a few minutes though, Henry has died, and as Fin visits his friend’s lawyer, the film shifts – suddenly, Richard Kind is rattling off dialogue in his own, inimitable way, and we realise how quiet the film had been until then – he probably says more in his 60 second appearance than Dinklage has said in the previous five minutes.

Fin chooses to walk the railway tracks to get to his new property – don’t try this at home, kids – a ramshackle station called Newfoundland. It’s perfect for Fin – it’s in the middle of nowhere, filled with vintage memorabilia and surrounded by broken down old train carriages. Somewhere he can live his life away from the kids in the shop who double take when they see him because of his height.

Except, of course, that’s not how it pans out, because he wakes up the next morning to find a coffee and Cuban food van parked across the road, manned by Joe (Bobby Cannavale) – another motormouth who instantly takes a shine to Fin. He also talks a mile a minute, and comes across like a puppy who’s desperate to play with its owner – Cannavale is brilliant at that childlike friendliness that doesn’t take a battering no matter how many single word and negative responses his pleas for friendship incite. There’s an element of the lovable goofiness Matt LeBlanc brought to Joey Tribbiani in his sweetest moments of Friends – particularly in a charming and genuinely funny back-and-forth as Joe asks Fin if he can join him if he’s doing anything later… it works well on film, trust me.

The ice thaws over several coffees and one-way conversations, and slowly, a friendship develops. They walk the rails together, as Joe begins to echo Fin’s quiet passion for trains – well, he echoes it loudly, because that’s his style.

Joe is fascinated by Fin’s size, but with a childlike curiosity, and he accepts Fin purely as a person first and foremost. His dwarfism is rarely a factor in their conversation – though when Joe asks a couple of personal questions and senses Fin isn’t comfortable answering them, he instantly retreats back to his beer and a content silence. It’s sweet, charming, and utterly believable.

The third member of the group of unlikely friends is Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) – an artist who lives nearby but is struggling to get over the death of her son two years previously. Fin first encounters her as he walks to town on his first morning in his new home, as she almost runs him over while distracted at the wheel. In a comic touch, the second time he encounters her is when he’s walking home from the shop and she almost runs him over again while driving in the opposite direction – as ‘meet-cutes’ go, it’s not bad, and it gets a laugh.

There’s a bit of a ditziness to Olivia that, honestly, feels a little forced at times, despite Clarkson’s best efforts. However, when she’s dealing with the more serious elements of her character, Clarkson is superb. There’s a scene just as the three are becoming friends where Joe goofs around with a young family and plays football with a pair of kids in front of his food truck, and in the space of a few seconds, Clarkson lets satisfaction, joy then uncontrollable grief play over her face without saying a word as she is reminded of her lost son.

Fin doesn’t want any new friends, Joe is desperate for friendship and Olivia is somewhere in between, and watching the distance between the three leads melt away is delightful, and never feels rushed despite the film’s brief runtime. Alright, the whimsical zither music playing over the trio’s first walk along the railway lines is a little overtly quirky, but it fits the style of the film – it’s not intrusive, not over the top, but just sweet enough to work.

As the trio spend an enjoyable evening eating, drinking and watching a video Joe and Fin have made of themselves chasing trains in the food truck, it’s hard not to wish you were part of the party. Then, after Joe calls it a night, Fin and Olivia indulge in your standard ‘end of the night’ melancholy conversations about life, death and everything in between.

FIN: “It’s really funny how different people see me. Treat me. Because I’m actually just a very simple, boring person.”

It’s something this film does well, following the light with the dark, but never in a way that feels too heavy-handed. The next morning, there’s a genuinely funny moment when Olivia’s estranged husband visits and finds the two men just waking up while Olivia is in her dressing gown, puzzlement on his face and politeness preventing a call for an explanation, but as they leave, we hear the beginnings of an argument between the couple.

Even the rest of the locals are a mixed bunch, a blend of good people and small-minded berks. For every schoolgirl who innocently asks Fin what class he’s in, and librarian who flirts with him, there’s a pair of rednecks who mock him simply for existing and a shopkeeper who takes a photo of her novelty customer without permission.

It’s a nice touch that we only see and hear as much as Fin himself – we’re not privy to any scenes he’s not present for, but adding to our connection with the character and his initial distance from the others. We only discover the reason for Olivia’s worsening mental health as the film continues, and it’s only thanks to Fin’s persistence in trying to reach her that she survives a suicide attempt – a complete reversal of how his character began his new life at the depot.

Fin resists Joe’s invitations to the local bar – a spit-and-sawdust place a little further down the tracks – and it’s clear that he’s had bad experiences in bars before. But, as he opens himself up to new experiences, he braves it for a visit and actually has a nice time – until one of the local douchebags turns up and starts abusing his girlfriend. Being a decent guy, Fin tries to stand up to him, but is pushed away and humiliated.

He’s later pushed away and made to feel small by Olivia too, as he tries to reach out to her, so when he returns to the bar, he’s in a mood to get drunk. Here, the filmmakers play around a little with form and style – we’re given Fin’s point of view, woosily swinging around the venue, claustrophobic and struggling to focus on people and drinks. The sound mix changes dramatically, as we can’t hear what people are saying, but we’re sure they’re talking about Fin, and the paranoia and negative feelings rise and rise until he can stand it no longer and drunkenly climbs onto the bar and screams at the drinkers to stare at him, because he knows that’s what they really want to do.

When he stumbles and falls onto the tracks while walking home and grins at the sight of a train’s light approaching, you know exactly what’s going through his mind, but it’s a relief when he wakes up unharmed with only a broken pocket watch and a hangover to show for his troubles.

He dusts himself off and visits Olivia where he discovers she’s taken an overdose – suddenly his rage at being judged by his appearance means nothing when her grief and upset about her ex-husband’s behaviour has driven her to try and take her own life. Fin gets her to hospital, cleans up her home, and rallies Joe round to welcome her when she’s healthy enough to leave. They’re friends, that’s what friends do.

We end with our heroes sitting on Olivia’s porch having eaten a wonderful meal cooked by Joe, enjoying a few drinks and looking to the future. It’s another sweet scene, and a satisfying way to round off the film.

Thoughts On The Film

I think everyone’s been in Fin’s position at some point in their life – a little bit sad, not looking for company and preferring to avoid others and wallow in yourself for a while. But this movie’s strength is in showing that while you might not realise you need them, sometimes letting your guard down a little and speaking to new or old friends could be just what you need.

He rightly won plenty of praise for his turn in Game Of Thrones, but Dinklage’s performance in this film is superb, real leading man stuff and not hidden beneath a fake beard or surrounded by gore and nudity. His is a quiet, thoughtful performance saying little but showing everything, and all the better for it.

Dinklage is superb – vulnerable, sad and with big, deep eyes that show his pain and tiredness. While he makes a terrific leading man, Cannavale is also great, annoyingly upbeat and friendly, but also a little fragile.

The filmmaking is simple and straightforward, nothing flashy, but it doesn’t need flash – this is a simple story about good people finding friends, and that’s all it needs to be.

The Verdict

89 minutes, not much in the way of plot, some minor conflict and adult themes, with gentle laughs and great performances?

I think it’s a great, sweet cuddle of a movie. Recommended.

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