The Station Agent
Director: Tom McCarthy
Synopsis: Tom McCarthy’s 2003 directorial debut about a train spotter afflicted with dwarfism in Hoboken, NJ who inherits an abandoned New Jersey Transit train station in Newfoundland. Despite his best of intentions at a life of Waldonian solitude, he finds himself surrounded by an unexpected company of misfits, who together form an alternative sort of transcendental commune in the woods.
Overview: In McCarthy’s feature film debut, moviegoing audiences were given their first glimpse of the man who would become Tyrion Lannister some eight years later, only in The Station Agent New Jersey native Peter Dinklage is more demure and soft spoken than he would appear in his future Game of Thrones role.
As Finbar “Fin” McBride, Dinklage turns in what is quiet possibly his best work, playing on an inferiority complex of Napoleonic proportions. His height is a constant source of public shame and self-conscious embarrassment. In McCarthy’s script, which was written with Dinklage (a close personal friend of the first-time director) in mind, Finbar’s struggles are tenderly delivered through the humanity evoked from a performer of a professional stature greater than that of those whose physical presence cast a shadow over Dinklage’s diminutive frame. Where some actors might shy away from such material for the sake of decorum and appearances, McCarthy and Dinklage turn an aberration of the normal into art. Dinklage’s shortness of stature is used as a prop by which McCarthy may tell a story of alienation and isolation that is universal, Finbar’s physical condition secondary to his psychological one delivered in Dinklage’s star turning debut.
Riding on the strength of McCarthy’s script and the charisma of Dinklage’s performance, The Station Agent is less about a dwarf than it is merely about man. Its drama is much larger than the superficial conceit by which the film’s sentimentality is achieved. In the film’s introduction of the physically grotesque into the pre-established community of Newfoundland, Finbar comes to represent a fundamental challenge to ingrained social preconceptions, our own as well as the film’s, which is why Finbar’s climactic acclimation into a larger culture and society by film’s end is so heartwarming and emotionally affecting. Finbar finally accepting a community despite his inner search for solitude is made sympathetic to anyone who has ever read and found a kindred spirit in Henry David Thoreau.
In its subtlety, its compassion, and its humor, Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent is a true gem of a film, fundamentally of the independent film movement of the early 2000s. McCarthy’s film is gleefully countercultural, and just left of the center that is the mainstream and Hollywood. While some might find the film’s tone ponderous and self-important, and may complain that it is a film where nothing happens, others will be sure to see characters that are all around us, the film a representation of everyday American life and leisure. With all of the loud and brashly self-defining films that vie for our collective attention in the theatre and on the television screen, it’s always a relief to come across a film that isn’t so obviously defined by overt dramaturgy, instead opting for the quiet study of the individual, his mind and soul revealed to those few who wish to follow him into the woods to commune with nature and a community all his own.