Movie review by Greg Carlson
Finbar McBride, played with incredible depth and charm by the marvelous Peter Dinklage, stands just under four and a half feet tall. As the central character in writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s “The Station Agent,” Fin spends a great deal of time avoiding people in order to spare himself the indignities of constant questions about his dwarfism. McCarthy shrewdly makes certain that Fin’s diminutive size is only one piece of this character’s puzzle, and spends the majority of the film focused on Fin as an ordinary human being.
A railroad aficionado, Fin works in a model train store with his best friend Henry (Paul Benjamin), meticulously crafting and detailing colorful engines from bygone days. When Henry passes away, Fin is surprised to learn that he has been included in the old man’s will. Henry has left his protégé a weather-beaten train station in the tiny outpost of Newfoundland, New Jersey. Mourning the loss of his mentor, Fin packs his belongings and moves to the remote station, which immediately attracts the unwanted attention of Joe (Bobby Cannavale), an unyieldingly talkative food truck proprietor who peddles coffee and sandwiches right next to Fin’s new home.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Joe doggedly pursues a friendship with Fin, no matter how often the door is literally shut in his face. McCarthy mines a certain sweetness in Joe’s refusal to give up, and Cannavale knows exactly what buttons to push in order to win the sympathy and affection of the audience. Slowly but surely, Joe’s charm reveals itself to Fin, and the two end up forming a pleasant alliance. Another element is added to the mix in the enigmatic form of painter Olivia (Patricia Clarkson, top notch as always). Mourning the loss of her child, Olivia cute-meets Fin when she nearly plows him over with her car.
Clarkson is so good, her mere presence guarantees that “The Station Agent” will yield something delectable and worthwhile. Her Olivia immediately becomes the glue that bonds Joe and Fin, and the careful manner in which they all negotiate their evolving relationship resonates deeply. McCarthy diverts our attention away from the primary trio long enough to set up a romantic subplot involving Fin and local librarian Emily (Michelle Williams). Emily’s interest in Fin unfortunately turns out to be the murkiest element of “The Station Agent,” and this is really too bad, since a thorough exploration of the Fin/Emily connection certainly could have been accommodated by the story’s running time.
McCarthy occasionally tackles scenes that explode with rage or sorrow, but for the most part, “The Station Agent” remains a quiet character study of a compelling person. Following a number of standout performances, Dinklage is finally able to take advantage of a perfect star vehicle, and he delivers a knockout punch. With his penetrating gaze and calm, measured voice, Dinklage is unfaltering in his hold on Fin. The actor almost effortlessly communicates to us why Joe would be so attracted to the solemn introvert, and McCarthy instinctively allows Fin’s smoldering presence to anchor nearly every single scene in the movie.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/24/03.