Thomas McCarthy, an actor, has changed hats for The Station Agent, his debut as both writer and director. An auspicious debut it is, to be sure.
The Station Agent is a "small" film, focused on a handful of interesting, quirky, well-realized characters and what happens when their paths cross. Small in scale, though, in no way implies small in accomplishment. This is an intelligent film that doesn’t boldface and underline its themes, but lets the story and characters convey McCarthy’s thoughtful ideas.
Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf with an enthusiastic interest in everything about trains and railroads. When he inherits an old train depot in rural New Jersey, he takes up residence there, a place where he plans to pursue his preoccupation and maintain the solitude into which he has withdrawn. McCarthy shows, in a series of passing incidents, the ways that people react to McBride. He is stared at, ridiculed, studiously ignored–mostly due to ignorance, sometimes due to the inability of some people to tolerate those who are different. These painful moments provide ample motivation for his withdrawal. McBride’s stoic reaction to them belies the underlying, repressed anger he naturally feels, subtly conveyed in Dinklage’s sensitive performance. And the imagery of trains, of course, embodies power, a certain masculinity (see Dr. Freud), and the fantasy of constantly moving on, providing McBride’s obsession with a logical underpinning.
Careening into his solitude comes Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), whose distracted driving habits lend new meaning to the word hazardous. Harris, in deep mourning over the loss of her young son, has separated from her husband and sought her own solitude, painting at her summer home on the lake. She meets McBride when her van, weaving from side to side of the road, forces him to leap out of the way. "Life keeps knocking at the door," she says, as each finds it difficult to maintain their loner ways against intrusions. (Harris has two cell phones which she never answers. McBride has no phone at all.)
The third principal character is Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a strapping Hispanic guy from New York, stuck in this New Jersey backwater because his aging father is ill. Joe is both taking care of his father and manning his father’s hot dog stand, which just happens to be next door to the train depot. Where McBride and Harris are withdrawn, Joe, lonely and friendly in a puppyish way, reaches out for companionship.
A natural, unforced progression of events creates unlikely connections between these very different people. Enhanced with some engaging minor characters (Emily, the young local librarian; Cleo, a neighboring Black girl who invites McBride to speak at her school), The Station Agent respects the humanity of its diverse characters, drawing them with psychological percipience accompanied by gentle and droll humor.
In addition to Dinklage’s outstanding work here, Clarkson (All the Real Girls, Far from Heaven)inhabits the character of Olivia, in a perfectly modulated performance. She is one of the great under-appreciated actors in the movies today, digging under the surface and conveying the essence of character in all its contradictory complexity.
McCarthy avoids the potential for sentimentality in this material. He tells his story in a straightforward, non-gimmicky manner. In style as well as in its its focus on character and the ways people connect, The Station Agent joins films like The Straight Story and You Can Count on Me as the kind of quality product which American filmmakers can produce when megaplex box offices are not the driving motivation.