Unless you are some hip independent film director with fabulous hair, being an outsider can be a lonely endeavor. Misfits wearing pancake makeup and pierced tongues are only generally accepted if they make cacophonous industrial music that expounds on the virtues of witchcraft and recreational drug use. Mother Nature, a spiteful whore when things don’t go her way, can alter the gene pool and create freaks that society turns its well intentioned but too busy to be bothered backs on.
You happen to live in Hoboken, New Jersey. It doesn’t appear to be the Hoboken of million dollar brownstones, upscale restaurants and overpriced coffee. It looks as if is the Hoboken of fifty years ago, a ramshackle neighborhood where petulant weeds grow out of cracked pavement. As you are harassed by insolent children playing in the street, you wonder if anything good has ever escaped besides that thin crooner with piercing blue eyes who did everything his way. You are a perceptive and knowledgeable train enthusiast. You repair trains in a model train shop and watch home movies of famous railroad lines, narrated by semi-narcoleptic nerds, with a group of train lovers one night a week. The gravel voiced shop owner, a kindly old gentleman who has a fondness for you and his cigars, is your one friend.
And you’re a dwarf. Bust a deal, face the wheel. You landed on gulag, brother. Life is going to be a chore, a war of attrition spent pulling society’s barbed wire out of your diminutive body. You need to become wary of people. Being regarded as an interesting, but malformed curio is not how you want to go through life. Why is that old woman taking a picture of you? Does she want to prop you up on a shelf in her musty dining room, next to her porcelain Hummel figurines?
Actor turned writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent is a classic of independent cinema. Filled with slightly oddball characters and a plot that highlights small moments instead of sudden plot twists or operatic character reveals, The Station Agent is the cure for anyone who has grown tired of the CGI infested blockbusters or the banal comedies that would rather smear an intelligent screenplay with poop stains than explore its possibilities. Many of us will never be in a shootout with Mexican drug lords whose bad jokes are deadlier than their aim. Slime shitting aliens have yet to level any of our cities with obnoxious death rays. However, we will all experience loss and be alienated at some point in our lives.
Life—a sadistic child with sociopathic tendencies—perpetually yanks our hair and steals everyone’s toys.
Small in stature, tall on talent actor Peter Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a world weary dwarf who inherits a decommissioned, broken down train station in rural New Jersey. Having everything in his existence taken from him in Hoboken, Finbar sets out to the town of Newfoundland where his new home awaits. Shots of him strolling along the tracks, suitcase in hand, evoke classic images of hobos roaming the countryside in search of a better life in another part of America. Finn’s a little dude, so it must have been a long walk and he was probably tired at the end of his trip. Folks in his new home should respect the fact that the man just wants to be left alone with his thoughts and his trains.
Hot dog man Joe, played by versatile mad scientist and energetic genius Bobby Cannavale, is not about to let Finn sink into the comfort of his one person world. Joe is the guy that always wants to do something with you. Firing out questions faster than a five year old wielding a Tommy-Gun, Joe just needs to know things about you. This information is not for malicious reasons. Joe just wants to make people feel good about themselves. Like the guy that spritzes cologne on his privates before he goes out at night, Joe is an undaunted optimist. Had he been born hundreds of years earlier, maybe Joe and his positive thinking would have made him the first person to navigate the treacherous waters around Cape Horn, or reach the frozen glaciers of Antarctica in a rowboat. With most of earth’s regions already discovered and mapped out by Google, Joe runs his father’s food truck while the old man recovers from an illness.
Much to his dismay, the truck is parked right outside of Finn’s train station. With that first cup of coffee he orders from Joe, the solitude that Finn desires will forever be threatened. Joe is not a man that understands the concept of being alone, or keeping to yourself. Joe quickly asks Finn if he wants to get a beer. Finn declines. Don’t drink? I do, Finn replies.
And walks away.
Nearly flattening someone with your Jeep Cherokee is a pretty good way to get yourself noticed by that person. Almost killing them twice in the same way is a sure way to get yourself remembered for life. However, that is how Olivia Harris introduces herself to an exasperated Finbar. Olivia is played by the talented actress and indie matriarch, Patricia Clarkson. With her thin frame and aristocratic nose and cheekbones, Clarkson brings an intelligence and mature beauty to the wounded Olivia. Like Finn, she is somebody that is trying to deal with loss by closing the door on the world. The world is a busybody, however. Like the secret police kicking down doors in some twisted dictatorship, good intentions harass us and arrest our personal growth. Watching the way Dinklage and Clarkson try to keep their distance from well meaning people is interesting to behold. A stern word here and there, a phantom appointment that you are late for, or train watching that must be done by yourself. When all else fails, Finn and Olivia will simply insult whomever is trying to reach out to them.
McCarthy deftly shows us how these three are imperfect without broadcasting it like Welles’ War of the Worlds radio show. They all act in ways that are regrettable, much like the deranged person writing this article and everyone reading it. They also have admirable qualities that McCarthy and the actors show us, but never tell us. It is a movie that treats its audience with intelligence. Hey, if you were able to muster up the brain power to purchase a ticket for the flick, McCarthy realizes that we may have the ability to understand the sometimes subtle changes in human emotion. This is a practice that some directors of big budget flicks should learn.
Rounding out the cast are the fresh from Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams as a local librarian who befriends Finn. Richard Kind plays the lawyer who hands Finn the keys to the station. Finally, John Slattery is funny mostly chewing gum and looking shocked as Olivia’s estranged husband.
Finally, check out the writing on the bartender’s shirt in the tavern. It says Get Naughty. This movie was destined to be reviewed here.