THE STATION AGENT (2003) directed by Thomas McCarthy
a commentary by Tony McRae  

ď(W)e need allies in inhabitation.Ē  Charles Moore

 Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage in an Oscar worthy performance) works at a model train store on a forlorn street in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The storeís owner Henry (Paul Benjamin) dies suddenly, bequeathing to Fin some property in rural New Jersey.  Fin has no friends save Henry, and so he packs a small valise and sets out to see what heís in for.  He arrives in a place with the improbable name of Newfoundland and finds heís inherited an old railroad depot, complete with a rundown agentís house, a dilapidated passenger car, and a red caboose.  Itís a barren spot and thatís the way Fin wants it.  

But itís not to be.  Little by little, one importunate person at a time, Fin gets entangled in the lives of the place.  Thereís Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), an artist separated from her husband after the death of their son, who literally runs Fin off the road with her SUV.  Twice!  Her apologies and offers of assistance are summarily rejected.  Joe (Bobby Cannavale) is another storyóheís not put off so easily.  His food and coffee stand happens to be a few yards from Finís depot, and Joe is anything but shy.  Like a shark who must keep moving to survive, Joe needs talk--and friendship--and heís not about to let Finís monosyllabic answers deter him.  One day Joe asks him if heís had sex with a "regular-size chick."  Fin, who is 4 feet 5 inches tall, answers yes.  Joe presses him.  What about a woman your size?  No, says Fin.  Joe isnít sure what to make of this:  hereís this little guy who's marginalized by society, living out here in the boonies, and yet he's normal, at least in one essential area.  Fin isn't surprised by this reaction.  But what he's not used to is Joe's complete lack of reproval.  On the contrary,  he compliments Fin one morning after he sees the attractive Olivia leaving Finís dwelling.   ďYouíre the man,Ē he tells Fin, clearly appreciative of the little manís ability to overcome his size and bed a desirable woman.  Fin frowns. "You're the man," Joe repeats.  (Olivia and Fin did in fact spend the night together, she on his couch, he in the bathtub.)  

At once caretaker and train mechanic, Finbar McBride becomes the "agent" at the Newfoundland station depot .  Okay, itís not a working station but even if it were heíd still be alone.  Station agents donít lead exciting lives, never have.  He walks the tracks and country roads, usually with no destination in mind, save the occasional trip to town for groceries or books on railroading at the public library.  

Finbar McBride occupies the center of this movie, and like a black hole he absorbs the sounds around him, forcing Joe and Olivia to fill in the silence.  Both are content to take Fin as he is, even to join him as he walks the rails, going nowhere; just being together seems enough.  For a while.  Then Olivia's husband shows up for some kind of showdown, and this sends her into a deep depression.  Fin is at a loss. He decides it's up to him to help her.  His strategy is to make A nuance of himself, much as Joe and Olivia did with him immediately after his arrival. 

All of us want to belong, to have a place which is ours.  Fin has his depot, Olivia her house on the lake, Joe his food truck.  Each discovers that living exclusively  for oneself isnít all that simple, not even in a rural place like Newfoundland, New Jersey.  Other people, too, come along who have their own needs and somehow they find Fin.  The first person Fin really talks to is Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a twelve year-old overweight black girl who, seeing the little person in front of her, asks if he goes to school.  Later she invites him to speak to her fifth grade class about trains.  He declines, but Cleo can thaw the iciest soul.  Her secret, I suspect, it that she treats Fin as a resource, someone who can help her standing in class.  Olivia and Joe also have their needs, and in a way these are greater than Fin's.  Except for Henry, being needed and valued is wholly new to Finbar McBride.  

Thomas McCarthy, in his directorial debut, permits the three actors to react to one another rather than emote.  It makes for a beautifully nuanced movie about loneliness and friendship.  It's also very funny.  The three leads occupy their space  with a naturalness rarely seen in mainstream movies today.  And who knows, perhaps Patricia Clarkson will finally get an Oscar nomination.   

Endings in movies are tricky.  To work they have to provide a certain satisfaction, which may or may not tie all the threads of the story together.  When Rick and Louis walk off together at the end of Casablanca  we are pleased even though Rick and Ilsa will never meet again.  In Bertrand Tavernierís A Sunday  in the Country Monsieur Ladmiral is alone in his darkened studio, and though we know his life is nearing its end we are not saddened, for he has come to accept the consequences of his decisions.  

At the end of The Station Agent three people are sitting on rocking chairs enjoying the sun and each otherís company.  Thatís it.  Problems are not tidily resolved, but each one has a ally, two in fact.  Itís a small thing, but maybe not so small after all.  


TRIVIA:  The only two movies ever filmed in Dover, New Jersey (according to the IMDb), are The Great Train Robbery (1903), certainly one of the most influential movies ever made, and one hundred years later The Station Agent (2003).  Both have to do with trains.  And station agents.  Of course in the first movie, the station agent has robbers to contend with.  Finbar McBride should be so lucky.