Thursday, September 20, 2012
Quietly Watching Trains Go By with the Station Agent
The Station Agent follows the life of Fin (Peter Dinklage), a New Jerseyan dwarf whose quiet life is turned upside down when his employer, Henry, dies. The hobbyist train shop that Henry owned - and where Fin worked - is sold, but fortunately Henry has some property that he willed to Fin. It is thus that Fin ends up living in a train depot, the former place of employment for the town's station agent, in the sleepy town of Newfoundland, New Jersey. Here Fin tries to continue to have a quiet existence, bothering no one, but his attempts are confounded. First, there's Joe (Bobby Cannavale), the talkative hot dog vendor who sets up across the way from the train depot and desperately wants to make friends in this quiet town. Then there's Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a free-spirited artist who has recently lost her son and separated from her husband. Rounding out the cast are Fin's young neighbor Cleo (Raven Goodwin), who is similarly obsessed with trains, and Emily (Michelle Williams), the flighty but sweet young woman who works at the library.
This film is one of those slice-of-life movies of which I am so fond. We catch only a small glimpse at the lives of these people, based on a brief period of time, but there is very much the feeling that these people existed before and after the credits rolled. That is to say, they don't feel like over-the-top fictional characters but instead resemble real people. In terms of plot, not a whole lot happens, but that does not mean the viewer walks away feeling nothing has changed. Indeed, the characters have grown throughout the film, most particularly Fin, who opens up and lets friendship into his life. One particularly poignant scene is when Olivia receives some bad news and shuts out Fin as a result, and you can see the hurt on his face and perhaps even the realization that her behavior mimics his when Joe, Olivia, and the others first tried to reach out to him and received no encouragement.
That all being said, a film like this really needs strong characters to carry it. After all, what is a movie about character development if the characters are dull and uninteresting or boorish and crass? Character-driven movies must have at least one likeable character, or I find that they fail miserably, at least for me. In this movie, that is not a problem. All of the characters are likeable in their own way. Joe was such a ridiculous character, trying so desperately to make friends, that I could not help laughing out loud several times when he could not contain his talkativeness or desire to build bridges. For instance, there is this gem of dialogue between him and Fin when he learns that Fin intends to stop by Olivia's house to drop off the cell phone she left behind:
Joe: Hey listen, if you guys do something later, can I join you?
Fin: We're not gonna do something.
Joe: No, I know, but if you do, can I join you?
Fin: We're not gonna do something later.
Joe [becoming more insistent]: Okay, but, if you do?
Fin [exasperated by this point]: Okay.
Joe [relieved]: Cool.
With Fin being the main focus of the movie, however, it's important that his character be likeable as well. As I mentioned above, he is at first cold to those who try to make friends with him. While this might make most characters seem less than likeable, in this case the viewer is sympathetic to Fin as the movie includes several scenes to indicate Fin's pathos and his desire to be alone. These largely revolve around Fin's dwarfism, which casts him in a light as "other" and evokes explicit and tacit mockery from new people. Fin later confides in Olivia about his feelings of being viewed in such a way, noting, "It's funny how people see me and treat me, since I'm really just a simple, boring person."
But even a simple, boring person could be interesting in the right light, which is exactly what The Station Agent shows. While the lives of these people are not exactly thrilling per se, the pacing, dialogue, music, and cinematography provide the perfect backdrop for drawing in the viewer. It's a great understated movie that is well worth watching.