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No. 28: “The Station Agent” (2003)

“It’s funny how people see me and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person,” notes reclusive dwarf Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) in Thomas McCarthy’s oberservant indie “The Station Agent,” and you might be tempted to apply that observation to the movie. Resist the urge. Sure, “The Station Agent,” a little-seen Sundance darling anchored by three stellar performances, is a gently unassuming little movie where nothing much happens, but it packs an emotional punch that will leave you smarting for days.

A few minutes into “The Station Agent,” this claim might seem far-fetched. Here, after all, is a movie that consists, primarily, of three characters doing one thing: talking. And talking. Eating and talking. Drinking. Drinking and talking. Then talking some more. To be fair, there’s very little action here, and zero melodrama. But McCarthy has a sly way of hiding real breakthroughs, real relevations, in conversations that sound like they’re full of offhand comments. Credit the actors — Dinklage, who’s quickly becoming a first-rate character actor, the always-faultless Patricia Clarkson and promising newcomer Bobby Cannavale — for creating characters so human, so intriguing, so affecting, that we’re drawn completely into their world.

That world centers on Finbar, a train buff and unrepentant loner who drops out of life altogether when his sole friend dies and Finbar inherits a run-down train station in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. He figures he’s done with people, done with the world, but he’s wrong. Enter Joe (Cannavale), a motormouth extrovert operating his sick father’s hotdog/coffee stand near the abandoned station. More than a bit intrigued by this curious hermit, Joe tries his hardest to draw Finbar out but has little luck until Olivia (Clarkson), a klutzy but well-meaning divorcee and artist still mourning her young son’s death, enters the picture. (The picture of distraction, she nearly runs him over with her car … twice.) After much fumbling, much stumbling and awkwardness, the trio strikes up a most improbable friendship that threatens to do away with their self-imposed exiles.

Of course, that plot summary doesn’t begin to do justice to such a stirring film. Why? All the poignancy, all the layers of meaning and the little truths and the sock-you-in-the-gut insights, exist in these three understated but phenomenally effective performances. Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale aren’t the kind of actors to spoon-feed meaning: You have to do the work, do the digging and the excavating, but the emotional payoff is well worth all the effort. Take Dinklage, for example. He plays Finbar as tight-lipped and wary, the kind of man who’s drinking alone even when he’s in a bar jam-packed with people. He keeps people at arm’s length because he’s learned that his smalls size makes the world feel … entitled — entitled to pat his head and grin, entitled to talk down to him, entitled pry into the most private details of his life to feel out his “normalcy.” But behind that wariness there’s a fire in his eyes, a kind of tamped-down rage, that makes this hermit anything but boring. In fact, Dinklage is the opposite; he’s smoldering, ready to ignite when it’s least expected.

Cannavale, on the other hand, has the most verbally expressive role — Bobby almost literally never stops talking — yet with tiny gestures he reveals a man whose world has shrunk to two people. Joe has become a drowning man reaching out to anyone and everyone to pull him out of solitude. (The scene where Finbar cruelly dismisses him will make your heart twist painfully.) The more Finbar pulls away, the tigher Joe wants to cling to him like a life preserver. He sees a chance for connection and won’t let it go. And Clarkson, a undervalued actress if ever there was one, is the queen of understated performances; this, if possible, is one of her best. Like Finbar, she is unsociable and lonely, but she reveals Olivia’s hidden pain through her distracted actions: She doesn’t answer her phone or return calls, she drives all over the road, she doesn’t refill medications, she forgets to eat or even buy groceries. These details are slight, but they sting as sharply as “The Station Agent” does.