Bob Guter Reviews
"The Station Agent"

 

OK, before we get to the art part, let me answer the question I know all you guys are wondering about. Is the star of "The Station Agent" really as cute as all the buzz claims he is? Purely by happenstance I am qualified to answer that very question, since I sat two tables away from Peter Dinklage in a Manhattan sushi joint before walking a few yards down the block to see him on the Big Screen.

Yes. He is. In the flesh maybe even handsomer than on screen. And there's charisma, too. He oozes it. But before your fantasy machines slip into overdrive, please remember the recent New York Times interview the actor gave, the one in which he mentioned a very favorable girl/boy ratio at Bennington College, where he went to school.

As everyone knows by now, Peter Dinklage stands 4 foot 5 and like Fin, the character he plays in "The Station Agent," he has no trouble referring to himself as a dwarf. But this is not a "dwarf movie" (no short people are used as human projectiles, bowling balls, or the homunculus-like companions of standard-size sidekicks). Furthermore, Dinklage is too accomplished an actor to merely play himself. And thank God for that.

Instead we have a film about three characters rendered outsiders, either by birth or circumstance. Fin, who works repairing model trains when we first meet him, is bequeathed an abandoned wooden train depot in rural New Jersey. There he meets Joe (Bobby Cannavale), the pathologically loquacious proprietor of a hot dog truck, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a pathologically ditzy artist of questionable achievement. The chamber-music-scaled-plot (other characters are largely peripheral) involves Joe's tireless efforts to break through Fin's reserve and to connect with the withdrawn Olivia.

Olivia's motivation teeters precariously on the edge of movie cliché: she is mourning the unexpected death of her young son. Joe's motivation is more elusive. What are we to make of his often-maddening puppy-like eagerness? Is his voracious need to connect filling in for some deep lack, or is the filmmaker arguing that Joe's impulses are, in fact, the desirable standard for human behavior against which the actions of the other characters might be judged deficient or damaged?

Can we go so far as to say that handsome and engaging Joe, who refuses to say or accept "No," embodies the life force, Eros, while Fin and Olivia flirt with Thanatos, the death instinct? I don't think it's a stretch in the least.

Those categories, however, forceful as they are, remain abstractions, while the characters that embody them are anything but. How we respond to the film is determined by the character of Fin, who manages to survive by surrounding himself with a nearly palpable silence. Has there ever been a movie protagonist with less dialogue or an actor who manages to extract more meaning from silence? Only a few of Ingmar Bergman's characters come to mind.

"The Station Agent" is filled with long-shots of Fin walking in silence: walking along a city street; walking along a country road carrying a suitcase half his size; walking a railroad right-of-way. He walks shielded by a silence so vivid and impregnable that it's like a self-constructed and visible aura. When we are shown how others react to Fin we understand why he tends that aura so vigilantly: a store owner snaps his picture as if he's the representative of an endangered species; the town librarian drops an armful of books when she unexpectedly catches sight of him; a pair of locals taunt him in the manner of schoolyard bullies.

The hesitant, intricate, intimate, and frequently funny dance of friendship engaged in by the three principals is punctuated by two scenes that put Fin in the forefront of the action. In the first, he tries to protect a young woman whose boyfriend threatens her. It's a testament to Dinklage's ownership of the role that we can feel in our guts Fin's shame at his own physical impotence when faced with a "normal" combination of superior size and strength.

More powerful still is a scene set in the local tavern where, after countless insults, Fin starts drinking. Finally he climbs onto the bar and in a drunken outburst made more shocking by his former reticence, he invites the gawkers to "take a good look."

By the end of the film the three friends have found a measure of ease and comfort in one another's company. The conclusion suggests that we are meant to see this unlikely trio as evidence of some variety of human salvation.

Although "The Station Agent" is mostly successful in avoiding sentimentality, thanks in large part to Dinklage's performance, I cannot help but wonder what happens to Fin when he steps outside the magic circle of friendship once more, as he must, and back into the world of gawkers. Can he be the agent of his own salvation?

© 2004 Bob Guter
"A Crip at the Flicks" logo/photo © 2003 Mark McBeth, Idea|Monger


THE STATION AGENT Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas)

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2004