This is a review by Tom Lainchbury of the film I showed when I hired Cottage Road Cinema for my 50th birthday.
For a film that deals with such negative themes as discrimination, loss and isolation, The Station Agent has a wonderful ability to make you smile.
The unlikely hero of this touching movie is 4ft-5in dwarf Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage). Years of abuse about his height have taught him to insulate himself from further hurt, so when an abandoned train depot is willed to him following the death of his seemingly only friend, Fin seeks to live a life of solitude. Two of his new neighbours seem determined to prevent him from doing so however.
Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an artist grieving over the accidental death of her young son, is drawn to him like a magnet in awkward circumstances, running him off the road twice in a single trip to the convenience store. Olivia seeks him out to apologise and an unlikely friendship is subsequently formed, encouraged by Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a chatty Cuban hot dog vendor, who relentlessly imposes himself upon the two, parking outside Fin’s new home every morning. To begin with, the only person who seems capable of penetrating Fin’s determination for solitude is Cleo, a young girl with an incurable curiosity who visits Fin on his depot. Her incessant questioning, youthful naivety and failure to treat him any differently because of his size is refreshing to Fin, who rewards her with direct interaction that few others have ever been fortunate enough to receive. Fin’s new found friendship with Olivia and Joe sets about changing this, along with his attitude to life, as he learns more about himself and relationships.
What connects this unlikely friendship triangle is what ordinarily would keep them apart. Each of them have a reason you’d expect solitude to be their only friend, but each of them learn to accept one another’s unique personality, and emotionally involve themselves in each other’s testing lives. Joe’s infatuation with Fin is almost puppy-like, following him around and demanding his company whenever he can. Where he was an irritation at first, Fin learns to let him in, and the pair form a surprising, yet enchanting friendship. Fin’s friendship with Olivia follows a similar pattern, but it is he that pursues her friendship when he learns of her difficulties with grieving for her son and her troublesome relationship with her ex-husband.
Director Thomas McCarthy effortlessly ties the lives of these three individuals together. Their unspoken anguish connects them in a way that seems simultaneously natural yet conflicting, but their contrasting personalities complement each other. The film does a great job of making such an unlikely and foreign scenario feel relatable, and strong performances from each of the actors make their characters easy to empathise with. Dinklage in particular portrays Fin with particular distinction; present in almost every scene but with limited dialogue, Dinklage plays vulnerability to perfection. As one of his first major film roles, The Station Agent demonstrates his ability to carry a film.
On top of all this, the director evidently treats you with respect. The Station Agent is a film that speaks as loudly in silent scenes as it does in those with dialogue, allowing the viewer to do their own thinking and reach their own conclusions. In fact, the film contains a surprisingly small amount of dialogue; Thomas McCarthy clearly wants his film to provoke viewers, and some of the most poignant scenes are ones in which very little happens. The director has an impressive ability to make you feel something, without telling how or what to feel; his appreciation for silence is almost to the extent that it occupies the same role as a character.
McCarthy also has a talent for portraying otherwise incomprehensible emotions in subtle ways, for example Olivia’s grief through her distracted response to everyday situations, or Joe’s keenness to busy himself and be seen as a happy go lucky guy to deflect from the sadness he feels looking after his ill father. These subtleties are ultimately what links the three main characters together, and it’s done in an admirably intelligent way.
The film ends rather unexpectedly, with the three characters seemingly only at the beginnings of what appears to be a fun and fruitful friendship, but with each of their problems not completely resolved. Whilst initially frustrating, it soon becomes apparent that your own anticipation of their future together is just as satisfying as the fairytale ending you might have expected. In fact, the fact that The Station Agent doesn’t finish with life perfect for the three characters serves as a gentle reminder that sometimes even isolation is better shared.