Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Station Agent (2003)

Peter Dinklage walking the right-of-way
I am curious to know whether 2003's indie drama The Station Agent has experienced a spike in sales or rentals since the debut of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones.  Peter Dinklage's performance in that series is the stand-out among a generally stellar ensemble, and is already receiving considerable Emmy buzz -- I can't be the only one inspired to go back and check out his breakthrough role.  I hope I'm not, anyway, as The Station Agent, although ultimately rather slight, is a terrific showcase for a truly remarkable actor.

Dinklage plays Fin, a misanthropic dwarf whose only love is trains and only apparent friend the taciturn elderly man who runs the model train shop that employs him.  In the film's opening minutes spent in Fin's hometown of Hoboken, we see that every trip outside of the dual sanctuaries of home and workplace is a veritable gauntlet Fin must run, as he faces down stares, jeers and jokes at the expense of his stature.  When he inherits a small patch of land in Newfoundland, NJ containing an abandoned train depot, Fin's eyes light up when the lawyer describes how isolated the area is.  We get the sense that only his need to be near the railroads would prevent Fin from fleeing as far from human civilization as he could.

Bobby Cannavale as Joe
What Fin doesn't anticipate is that the fact that Newfoundland is a much smaller town only means the people will be all the more inescapable.  In particular, he is drawn into the orbit of Joe (Bobby Cannavale) a young man operating his father's food truck and masking his loneliness behind seemingly unlimited gregarious energy, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) a woman who lost her young son two years previously, and has now fled her home in Princeton to retire into perpetual mourning. 

Indie comedy/dramas about lonely people coming together to find some kind of family are a dime a dozen, but The Station Agent stands apart from the pack thanks to the strength of its performances.   All three leads are perfectly cast; all three shine in roles which provide no opportunities to speechify, emote, or chew the scenery.  We come to understand these characters from the ways they avoid certain questions, the ways that smiles come and go, and the ways they rely on each other.

Clarkson paints while one of the film's ubiquitous telephones sits ominously in the foreground.

But Dinklage is the real star of the show here.  His Fin is a man of few words, yet his character is perfectly illuminated in gesture, nuance, and posture.  We quickly understand that his misanthropy is a shield, built out of the scars of a lifetime of casual cruelty.  There's a great scene between Fin and Joe, where we get to watch these defenses at work.  Joe behaves like the dog that follows you home, completely impervious to Fin's coldness, and has gradually worn away at his shell.  One afternoon they share a picnic lunch with Olivia, and we get to watch as Fin's defenses spring into action as Joe asks a particularly poorly worded question.  "So do you people have clubs, or what?"  There is not outrage from Fin, no bluster -- just a tightening around the eyes and a straightening of his posture to indicate that the walls are going back up.  When Fin learns that Joe was asking about clubs for trainspotters, not dwarfs, his life begins to change -- here may be a friend who sees him as he sees himself, "a simple boring man."

Michelle Williams as Emily, the librarian
There are no grand revelations, and only once does a dramatic "event" propel the plot forward.  Mostly this is a film about people trying to let go of the things that keep them lonely, trying to learn how not to hold people at arm's length.  Around the margins, others insert themselves into the trio's lives, for better or for worse.  Mad Men's John Slattery plays Olivia's estranged husband David, a presence in the form of eternally ringing phones long before he makes it on screen.  Michelle Williams began her move away from her Dawson's Creek image into more serious material here, as a librarian named Emily, the kind of girl who spends all her time telling people that her boyfriend isn't as bad as he seems, even though she knows he's worse. 

Ultimately The Station Agent is the kind of film that is so slight in its ambitions and scope that it could easily float away, were there not performances of tremendous gravity at its center to pull it back down.  As a showcase for Peter Dinklage's talents it's especially terrific.  It makes one long for Hollywood filmmakers brave or imaginative enough to cast him in roles not built around his height; few actors have this much charisma and range to burn.

No comments:

Post a Comment