Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
The Station Agent
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
First-time filmmaker Tom McCarthy, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, has for the past ten years been working his way up the show-business ladder, acting on stage and television and directing regional and off-off-Broadway theater. In his spare time, like many aspiring filmmakers, he was also writing a screenplay. In the process (as he tells the story) he suddenly had the idea of casting Peter Dinklage—a dwarf—as his leading man.
Having directed Dinklage on stage, McCarthy appreciated his personal and professional dignity. With Dinklage's help McCarthy began rewriting the script, incorporating Dinklage's accounts of his own experience and making them central to the screenplay. Dinklage, an intelligent actor, has a compelling presence on the screen. And as McCarthy also recognized, Dinklage is a handsome man even by conventional standards. The Station Agent, widely acclaimed as the best independent film of 2003, gives him what we can only hope will not be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Hollywood usually relegates dwarfs to fantasy-world caricatures, cheerful grotesques, most famously the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Given Hollywood's current enthusiasm for imaginary realms, dwarfs willing to play these roles have lots of work. But Dinklage has always refused to be stereotyped. He does make an appearance in Will Ferrell's Christmas movie Elf, but, as he reminds interviewers, not as one of Santa's helpers.
In the early scenes of The Station Agent, it is obviously McCarthy's intention to have Dinklage's size—he is four feet six inches tall—affect the audience as well as almost all of his fellow characters. But as the movie unfolds it is the actor's understated performance, his personal dignity and his photogenic face to which one is drawn.
I cannot claim to have immediately appreciated what McCarthy and Dinklage—the collaboration should be emphasized—had achieved in their quirky film. The first time I saw The Station Agent I was prepared to dismiss it as sentimental pandering to political correctness. The good guys were the dwarf, Fin; a Cuban, Joe (Bobby Cannavale); an African-American girl, Cleo (Raven Goodwin); and a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson). The bad guys were all rude and insensitive white men. But The Station Agent stayed with me, perhaps because of its quirks, and I began as an afterthought to recognize its psychologically nuanced power—and, most importantly, I understood that McCarthy had never condescended to nor exploited Dinklage.
The inescapable questions of The Station Agent—and of Dinklage's life—are: how will people respond to his dwarfism, and how will he react to their gawking, head-turning, wisecracks, and occasional cruelty? Each person's reaction reveals something psychologically significant about him or her, and Dinklage's response defines his psychological identity.
Dinklage has the defiant nobility of the court dwarfs captured by the 17th-century Spanish painter Velazquez. Look carefully and you will see that he depicts them as equal human beings to the Spanish nobility who are his usual subjects. But such is the elemental power of the film medium that it can have greater impact than all the genius of Velazquez. Film can compel empathy. It can lift audiences out of their settled convictions and let them glimpse something of themselves in the alien other. McCarthy has used that power so that we will see in Dinklage not just a "short-limbed dwarf" but an Everyman in a morality play of face-to-face encounters with other human beings.
Erving Goffman made us recognize the importance of what he called "the presentation of self in everyday life." All of us know what it feels like to be slighted in public, to be the center of unwanted attention, to worry that people are whispering about us and laughing at us. And some of us know, or at least sense, the cruelty in the derogatory reactions to the shamed victim. We can only imagine, and films like The Station Agent help us to imagine, what face-to-face encounters are like for people marked out and stigmatized by nature. McCarthy's film is a meditation on how Finbar McBride, a proud man, comes to terms with the humiliation of face-to-face encounters—a domain in which psychology and morality are inextricably linked in the challenge of treating the other as an equal human being. McCarthy's film goes deeper to explore grief, loneliness, and the impulse to find a utopia in solitude or at least a haven from the heartless world of others.
When we first meet Fin he is a thirtysomething adult who seems to have found that haven. He works for Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin), an African-American owner of a model-train store in Hoboken, New Jersey. Both are alone except for each other, their shared interest in trains, and their mutual respect and understanding. When Henry dies suddenly, Finbar is left unemployed and utterly alone, with nothing but an abandoned train station in the boondocks of Newfoundland, New Jersey, that Henry has bequeathed to him.
How Fin gets to Newfoundland is never clear. We see him walking along the tracks as trains thunder by, and walking on the tracks until he arrives at his desolate station. Has he walked all the way from Hoboken? We will never know, but these images establish Fin's total preoccupation—his obsession—with trains as the mark of his "aloneness." There must have been a remarkable working relationship between director McCarthy, cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, and film editor Tom McArdle. Operating on a small budget, they decided to use their resources to explore the felt experience of the characters rather than lay out every step of the narrative. The man juxtaposed with the trains is an important and recurring cinematographic theme. Later there will be a shot of Fin standing on top of an abandoned train. The lonely little man carefully positioned toward one end of the top of the passenger car is an arresting composition; the lack of a narrative to explain how he got there only heightens its impact. Like much of the cinematography in The Station Agent, this scene has all the force of a still photograph. Many similar moments hold the film together and show us how the team used Dinklage's size to create powerful images that challenge viewers' voyeurism or simple pity.
Once in Newfoundland, Fin, an orderly chain-smoker in a black suit and white shirt, structures his solitude with routines. In addition to Fin's ever- present feelings of loss for his friend Henry, we also sense that he does not expect to find another such like-minded friend. He wants most of all to be left alone. Solitude is to be his anodyne. Indifference to others is to be his studied defense. His psychological armor will make him seem more self-sufficient and stronger than the people he will meet in Newfoundland.
I have no knowledge of what McCarthy's screenplay looked like before he hit on the idea of casting Dinklage. But I suspect it may have been premised on a character much like the one Dustin Hoffman played in the Oscar-winning film Rain Man. Finbar's preoccupation with trains goes beyond a hobby or avocation. Psychologically his obsession resembles the fixed interest of the idiot-savant form of autism. For reasons not yet understood, idiot savants like the Rain Man character are not capable of emotional development. Their inability to share the human emotions that connect us is tragic; opting for Fin instead created the possibility that the character might develop emotionally, and also the opportunity for us to understand Fin's obsession not as a peculiar limitation of mind but as a monastic vocation—an anchorite's retreat from the cruelty of others.
If Fin wants isolation, it turns out that he has come to the wrong place. In another gap in the narrative logic of the screenplay, a catering truck sits in the parking lot of the empty train station. But emotions move this film along, and Joe Oramas, the driver (filling in for his sick father), belongs there because he is an extroverted man desperate for company. Joe, like everyone else Fin meets, first reacts only to his size. But his own loneliness, his conviviality, and his insatiable curiosity quickly lead him to try to befriend Fin. He will even become interested in trains. Cannavale's character—both innocent and raunchy—brings most of the humor to the film.
Fin soon encounters other inhabitants of Newfoundland, most significantly Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) who is so flustered when she catches sight of him on the road that she nearly runs him over. Clarkson was awarded a special jury prize for outstanding performance at Sundance for her Olivia, and I might have appreciated her more had I not seen her recently in Pieces of April, where she also plays an overwrought woman near breakdown. InThe Station Agent she is the emotional antithesis of Fin. Her only child, a boy, died in a playground fall when she turned away for an instant. She is filled with insurmountable grief and guilt. Like Fin, she has retreated from others, in her case to the solitude of her summer home, where she is trying to be creative and paint. Unlike Fin she is constantly overcome by her emotions; her favorite word seems to be "shit."
As an apology for nearly running over Fin twice in one day, she brings a bottle of whiskey to his apartment in the station to share with him. When she gets drunk and falls asleep and Joe sees her emerge the next morning, he assumes they are getting it on and suggests a threesome. Joe's estimation of Fin's sexual prowess becomes further inflated when a dipsy young librarian named Emily (Michelle Williams) spends the night in the station. In truth, Fin wants nothing from these women and offers nothing but his usual respectful demeanor. None of Joe's assumptions are true. Instead both women begin to confide in Fin. Olivia eventually tells him about the death of her son, her fear that she can have no more children, and her devastation after learning her former husband's young girlfriend is going to bear his child. And the librarian, who has not told anyone else, confesses to him that she is pregnant. Is it because Fin is a dwarf that both women confide in him, or does his willed emotional detachment, like a psychoanalyst's professional demeanor, allow them to reveal themselves to him?
Fin's wall of reserve begins to melt in the warmth of Joe's determined charm and his growing feelings for Olivia. Along the way, little Cleo has broken through as well. She gets off to an awkward start when she asks him innocently what grade he's in, and then, "Are you a midget?" Midget is now an epithet, but Fin good-naturedly explains that he is a dwarf. Cleo's candid questions are without malice or mockery; she, like him, seems to be a loner interested in trains.
With these friends Fin has begun to make a life in Newfoundland, but there is still the problem of the larger community's reaction to his dwarfism. In the only moment of bathos in this film Fin goes to the local bar and gets drunk. He had let down his defenses with Olivia, and she, in one of her typical outbursts, has rejected him. At the bar Fin's detachment gives way to angry defiance at the gawking strangers. The camera makes him look grotesque—a huge head on a tiny body—as he stands on his barstool and rants at everyone who has been eyeing him: "Take a good look."
Several movie reviewers found fault with this scene, as though Fin's humiliation was out of keeping with the rest of the film. But to me it seems crucial to the psychological development of Fin's character and to the film's project. Fin staggers out of the bar and collapses on the train tracks as one of his beloved trains roars down on him. He gives a ghastly smile of welcome to his annihilation. But morning comes and he is alive. Was the train a dream? Then he notices that the precious pocket watch with which he timed the trains has been crushed. Was he saved by a miracle? Be it dream or miracle, Fin, as every man in this morality play of the human encounter, has faced up to his worst fears of humiliation and the possibility of his own death. He has survived, and he has changed.
Later, when Cleo asks him to come to school and talk to her class about trains, he first declines, explaining that he would have to face the reflexive cruelty of children. Cleo, wise beyond her years, tells him that if he cares about her he can and will come. Fin allows himself to be vulnerable because he cares about Cleo. He shows up in Cleo's class and endures the cruelty he anticipated. But he is also asked a surprising question by one of the children: Why trains? What about zeppelins?
Fin does not find love at the end of this film, but he has let down the barriers that protected him from being wounded by others. In the last scene Joe, Olivia, and he seem to be enjoying a newfound friendship, and Fin is secure enough to repeat the question: "What about zeppelins?!"
The Station Agent is a charming film that reminds us that, be they kind or nasty, other people are our only possibility of happiness.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
How would I know / when I’m empty and quiet like breath?
Historian Gerald Horne has developed a grand theory of U.S. history as a series of devastating backlashes to progress—right down to the present day.
Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.