"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.
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efforts to break through Fin's reserve and to connect with the withdrawn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'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
"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
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,
THE STATION AGENT Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; Peter
Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris),
Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas)
Let us know
what you think of this BENT feature.