Finbar McBride is a sullen man with dwarfism who works at a shop for plastic trains. The shop closes and he inherits a tract of land with an abandoned train depot on it. As he moves to the station, the rural people around the depot slowly draw him out of his emotional shell.
Long before Peter Dinklage became a household name by starring in the Game of Thrones TV series, he played in The Station Agent (2003), which was his big breakthrough into Hollywood and earned him a couple of awards. Dinklage played in a couple of TV series in the 90s and jumped to the big screen in the early 2000s, starring in multiple films per year, and the Station Agent was one of them. I have started this review with a focus on Dinklage because this is pretty much his film. He is the station agent, named Finbar McBride and the story turns around him.
The Station Agent is very much about McBride dealing with his handicap of dwarfism, and I don’t think the same movie could have been made now with the same actor. Back in 2003, Dinklage was an unknown actor and the fact that he is short was pretty much the defining characteristic of his roles. But compare this with his recent role in Pixels (2015), where that wasn’t deemed so important (very surprising too for an Adam Sandler movie). Dinklage has become so well-known and recognizable that he can no longer fulfill the role of a token dwarf. If he would star in a new film about the hardships of dwarfism, it would most likely be a biopic about his life. The Station Agent, though, was before that time, and the opening scenes focus very much on his daily problems.
One by one, Fin meets the people who live around the train station and they are very different from the city folk, and from him. At first he brusquely ignores them or tells them to leave, but the kind people become part of his new life. Without spoiling too much, McBride is the center of gravity of the movie. His character and the station that he maintains are a stable focus point, and the rest of the story and the other characters revolve around him. The people he meets are all eccentric and have their own issues in life, and he is slowly drawn into some kind of impromptu family of people who are all sort of drifting in their lives, just as he is.
Soft music and appealing shots of the city and the natural environments give the film an inviting, easygoing mood. There is quite some humor too, but it is not the main tone. Instead, the laughs are understated and a welcome addition to the somber presence of McBride. As the little band of misfits grows into a family, the moroseness lifts. Fin, who is given a very silent performance by Dinklage, communicates mainly through single words and body language, and finally starts opening his mouth. Dinklage’s acting is very good here, using mostly facial expressions.
Actually, all acting is very good. Patricia Clarkson as an emotionally troubled woman and Bobby Cannavale as the lively, loud and sympathetic vendor are excellent counterpoints to Fin McBride. It’s no surprise that later in the story, everyone turns out to have some personal problems, and the final third act is about overcoming those walls. The movie wasn’t set up to make some complicated point, and it didn’t need to be. It’s simply about being open to human connections, and those connections are interesting and gripping by themselves.
Overall, The Station Agent is a gentle film that flows forward like a little brook. Calming and uplifting, and with a simple, charming story. It can be an inspiration, even, for us moody folks, to not forget to take more enjoyment out of life when you can, and not hide behind protective walls.