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The Station Agent (2003)

subtle understatement matched by sensitive, nuanced performances

Directed by:

Thomas McCarthy

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 90 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States

Model train shop owner Henry (Paul Benjamin) dies of a heart attack, bequeathing to his friend and colleague Fin a disused train depot in Newfoundland, New Jersey. It’s pretty, but there ain’t nothin’ out there, nothin'”, says the attorney, which suits Fin, who is a dwarf, just fine, as all he wants is to spend his life in quiet seclusion watching trains. The morning after Fin arrives, however, he discovers that Joe, a Hispanic whose hotdog truck is set up on Fin’s doorstep, is determined to befriend him – and on the same day Olivia, a local artist haunted by a past tragedy, accidentally runs Fin off the road with her pick-up – twice! As time, measured in trains, passes, an awkward relationship develops between these three outsiders, each attracted to the aching loneliness and alienation of the others.

If the average Hollywood blockbuster is the cinematic equivalent of a glossy airport novel, then ‘The Station Agent’ is more like a haiku poem, with all unnecessary action and exposition carefully pared away to leave a work of accomplished simplicity. Not very much actually happens, and what revelations there are emerge in whispers rather than shouts, for ‘The Station Agent’ is a film not so much of events and melodrama as of minute observations, minimalist gestures and delicate characterisation. The script by Thomas McCarthy (who also directs) is a marvel of naturalistic economy, with not a word out of place, painting a vivid picture of the damaged, uncommunicative Fin and Olivia in the fewest possible strokes.

The subtle understatement of the film is matched by sensitive, nuanced performances. The superb Peter Dinklage clearly conveys the conflict between Fin’s self-loathing bitterness and his growing affection for the other two, despite rarely speaking in more than monosyllables. As the far noisier Joe, on the other hand, Bobby Cannavale uses his exuberant gregariousness to express a deeper yearning to belong, while the ever wonderful Patricia Clarkson, who has a proven track record for playing difficult rôles (‘High Art’, Pieces of April), pins down just the right note of desperation for Olivia.

Encountering Fin’s trainspotting activities for the first time, Joe’s response is ‘Really boring. Do you mind if I hang out for a while?’. Indeed, the taciturn, retiring characters of ‘The Station Agent’ might sound boring, but a little time in their company is very well spent. For while ‘The Station Agent’ may, like its protagonist, be small and subdued, there is plenty of pain and anger simmering beneath the surface calm. So show your ticket, get on board and see why ‘The Station Agent’ was such a winner at 2003’s Sundance Film Festival.

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It's Got: Understated subtlety, nuanced characters, outstanding performances, and lots of trains.

It Needs: A First Class ticket.

Alternatives:

Love Liza, The Unbelievable Truth, Ulees Gold

Summary

Keenly observed, quietly engaging, very much sticking to its own timetable, and on a refreshingly different track from Hollywood's locomotive behemoths.

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