I’m so tired of independent movies with the same old plot of railroad-loving dwarves who inherit train depots in rural New Jersey. Herein lies the plot of writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s feature debut “The Station Agent,” which arrives straight from the film festival circuit.
This story is a look at isolation and the different ways people connect and disconnect themselves from the world. It is a rumination of loneliness – three different kinds to be exact – as well as friendship. Left alone by the death of his only friend, Fin (Peter Dinklage) is bequeathed a small depot and the chance to alienate himself from the world. With an incredible cast of perfectly portrayed characters, this movie is an exercise in naturalism. There is a highly realistic feel of participation as you watch these disparate lives collide and then search for a way to make the pieces fit.
Using the rare directing technique of subtlety, it feels like McCarthy consciously steps back to let his characters, as well as the unusual but effective location of rural New Jersey, shine. Boy does it work. The location is tiny so the characters can’t help but constantly interact and develop. Newfoundland, N.J. has a confining nature to it, where it seems the characters can’t get away from each other no matter how much effort they put in. This situation gives a certain charm and definite humor to the film as these characters squirm around one another and search for common ground. McCarthy utilizes incredible shots to emphasize the intense solitude and small stature of Fin. Although his separation from the world may be a self-exile, it is obvious that not many people reached out to him along his route there.
Dinklage gives a beautifully subtle performance as the taciturn recluse, who along the way completely destroys the mystification of the dwarf and gives a true portrayal of the reticence someone might have to a lifetime of ignorant looks and questions. Patricia Clarkson (“Far From Heaven”) works well as a devastated maladroit artist struggling for purpose and connection after losing a young son. Bobby Cannavale follows suit in the role of garrulous substitute vendor searching for friendship and any way to pass the time. An awkward agreement of friendship arises between the three of them, with an odd mother/son undertone between Fin and Olivia.
Upon Fin’s arrival in Newfoundland he is met with hospitality, bordering on obsession that is inspired by equal parts genuine kindness and spectacle fascination. They slowly warm him to the joys of company. His need for solitude is slowly mitigated as he grows a unique connection to Olivia and Joe, which is then pulled apart with the same difficulty it took to build.
McCarthy’s film, the darling of last year’s Sundance, is a touching and often very humorous film and despite a slightly stumbled into conclusion, provides an original look at the laborious efforts and barriers we encounter and create when meeting new people.
Rating: 4 stars