Winner of the Audience Award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Tom McCarthy's surprisingly affecting The Station Agent is a modest, quiet film that values the spaces between words, and the silent, tentative glances between new friends. It's an antidote to the increasingly loud Hollywood film—a character-centered meditation symbolized eloquently by the slow inevitability of trains, and by the gorgeous melancholy of small-town New Jersey. And also by the poignant calm of a dwarf named Finbar.
Portrayed with a steely-eyed guardedness by Peter Dinklage, Fin is an unlikely protagonist. He's prone to deep-voiced murmurs, and he'd rather simply be alone with his silence. He's a diminutive man who has shut himself off from a world predisposed to ridicule him. When we first meet Fin, he is settled comfortably into his years-long routine of working with his old friend Henry (Paul Benjamin) at a train hobbyist shop—it's a quietly fulfilling, anonymous life. He is a man in love with the mythology of the locomotive, so when his life changes and he inherits a small, abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey, your first thought is that he's headed toward a new, equally solitary existence. But fate holds different plans for Fin.
Fate comes in the form of two fascinating friendships. Taking up residence adjacent to Fin's new property is the Gorgeous Frank's food truck, commandeered by the cheerfully in-your-face Joe (Bobby Cannavale)—a hysterical personality who bounces off Fin's quiet dignity like a relentlessly happy boy suffering from ADD. Every morning, Joe hurriedly sets up camp outside the deserted depot and stretches out to chat on his cell phone—between very infrequent coffee customers at this strange location. When he encounters Fin, he sees an instant friend, someone with which to talk and laugh at great length…but of course Fin wants none of that. Further complicating Fin's new idyllic scenario is the sudden intrusion of Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who nearly runs Fin down in the street—twice! This woman's a mess, grieving and alone, and soon—as if below your radar—the film is alive with the sudden power of these three distinct personalities slowly coming together in their solitude.
The Station Agent wouldn't be nearly as powerful as it is without its exceptional cast. Foremost among these performers is Peter Dinklage, whose restraint and solemnity are absolutely compelling. Patricia Clarkson exudes emotional agony in all the right places, and when she allows her character the smallest of enjoyments, it's like your heart is breaking. Bobby Cannavale is the type of actor that garners laughs from just his movements and mutterings: the way he walks along train tracks, his posture at the edge of a couch, his obvious ad-libs. All three offer distinct pleasures, inhabiting their very different characters with confidence and utter realism. In smaller roles, Raven Goodwin shines as the frankly curious little girl Cleo, and Michelle Williams is perfect as Emily, an awkward librarian drawn to Fin.
This is a film that truly draws you in, and when it ends, you don't want to let it go. These are people you'd like to meet and befriend. Fin, above all, urges you forward into the film, making you want to learn more about him. It's easy to understand why he acts as a magnet to the characters around him, because he has the same effect on you. The magic of The Station Agent is that it's so potent while remaining largely quiet. You might think that a movie filled with silence and sadness would leave you snoring, but the truth is that every shot, every glance, commands your attention. And when the film does give way to joy—as in the inevitable train-chasing sequence—you just about cheer.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Buena Vista presents The Station Agent in an anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. The film was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm, so expect some inherent problems with sharpness, grain, and fine detail. Close-up detail is quite good, but detail begins to suffer from the middle distance back. Backgrounds are especially soft. You'll notice smudging and graininess, too, along with a certain flatness. Colors are fine if muted. Skin tones are accurate, but black levels are mediocre.
However, this seems an accurate representation of what I remember from the theater. What I don't remember from the theater, however, is the presence of moderate edge halos and ringing.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is very low-key, in tune with the film. In case I didn't give the impression earlier, this is a dialog-heavy film, so most of the sound comes front and center. I noticed little activity across the front soundstage, and the surround channels are used solely for ambience, such as rain. This isn't the most dynamic soundtrack, but this track gets the job done. Voices are clear and accurate, with no perceived distortion at the high end.
You also get a French Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, as well as English and French subtitles.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Appropriate to the tone of the film, the DVD offers a modest array of supplements. Primary among them is a Commentary by Tom McCarthy, Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannivale, and Patricia Clarkson. This is one of those commentary tracks that's a relaxed joy. Containing lots of laughter and easy conversation, it's the kind of track that is really a glimpse into the atmosphere of the shoot itself. The actors talk about how they approached shooting various scenes, and they're full of praise for their cohorts. McCarthy heaps similar praise, on his cinematographer and cast and others. Everyone values the sense of acting that's not rushed, of characters just being quiet together—a concept that the film conveys very well. The film's western motif is brought up repeatedly. This is an extremely chummy commentary that's infectiously fun.
Next, you get 4 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes, all of which were merely cut for length. Lunch, The Roof, and Henry's Father are all snippets involving the character of Henry, near the start of the film. The Morning After is an extension of the scene between Fin and Emily. Finally, Gorgeous Frank offers an alternate ending to the film, which changes the tone of the ending from subdued to cheerful. You can choose to watch these scenes with or without commentary by McCarthy, Dinklage, and Cannivale.
Wrapping things up, you get Sneak Peeks at The Human Stain, The Barbarian Invasions, Cold Mountain, City of God, Bad Santa, and People I Know.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Station Agent deserves all the acclaim it can find. I caught it a local theater, in a nearly empty auditorium. Too bad, because if you haven't discovered this film, you're really missing out on something special. This is a modest DVD release, but it's definitely worth your time and cash.