Film Review: The Station Agent

By Mohammad Bilal Iqbal

Our Valentine’s Day pick.

“There are people called train chasers, they follow a train and they film it.”

“Are you a train chaser?”

“No.”

But Finbar Mcbride loves trains. He does not know how to drive and does not own a video camera, so instead he walks along the railroads –“the right of way”. He has just one friend: Henry Styles.

And when Henry dies and bequeaths him a piece of rural land with a train depot on it, it is time to move. So Fin packs up his bag and walks the railroad to Newfoundland, New Jersey.

The promise of a quiet solitary existence is quickly broken when Fin finds Joe Oramas for a neighbor. Joe is filling-in for his sick dad, selling coffee in a mobile van right next to Fin’s train depot. Add in a chance encounter with Olivia Harris, when she runs Fin twice off the road, and you have makings of an unlikely trio.

Shot in Canada, The Station Agent features some breathtaking scenery. Be it being on an abandoned rail bridge looking over a calm lake and eating beef jerky, or sitting on a bench waiting hours for the next train to pass by, Thomas McCarthy’s camera never tries to steal the show with modern cinematic gimmicks. It lets the viewer absorb the scenery in its simplicity and then some. Neither is his script nor the demands that he makes on his actors theatrical.

Peter Dinklage plays Fin with an aloof detachment that perfectly captures the state-of-mind of the character. He is an unwilling hero who is denied his one wish to live a solitary life, away from people that have nothing better to do than make fun of his height. Not that he cares.

Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) herself wants to be left alone – not a hard thing to do if you know how to drive straight down a straight road.

If Olivia is the klutz, then Joe (Bobby Cannavale) is the life of the group. There would not be much of a film with two recluses. So in comes the happy-go-lucky Joe. With his full-of-life persistence and refusal to take no for an answer, Joe is what makes the three come, and stay, together.

They all have skeletons in their closet that they are running from. That is what makes being together so important: they cannot face them alone.

You will not find a traditional Hollywood-style closure here. But the film is not left open-ended for the sake of an artistic statement either. The Station Agent is a film that mimics life – full of light, even funny, moments sprinkled with a few looming dramatic realities.

The key, perhaps, is to enjoy those lighter moments and try not to worry too much about your problems. The Station Agent could simply have been three people enjoying the company of each other, but it goes a step further. It invites you to be the fourth, silent, member of this group, to walk alongside the characters on their trek across the railroad for a picnic, or join them for a nice slow afternoon of train watching.

It is rare to find a modern film where the director errs on the side of simplicity and lets the characters and the story do the talking, and it is even rarer to find it done so well.

Cast & Credits
Written & Directed by Tom McCarthy
Starring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson & Michelle Williams
Released by Miramax Films
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rated R for language and drug usage

Bilal Iqbal blogs about film, film theory and performance art at The Second Frame. Check it out!

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