“It’s funny how people see me and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person.” —— Finbar McBride
Well, no he’s not—a boring person, that is, once you get to know him. Nor boring is the movie in which he appears. Leisurely paced and earnest, yes. The Station Agent is one of the more recent (2003) films to be discussed on this site, but a one-and-so-far-only viewing of this little independent film has inspired some thoughts. With its relaxed tempo and unpretentious characters, the viewing experience is a welcome escape from the booming sound, fast tempo, quick editing, explosions, special effects and improbable plots of most current films. Here are real people, existing and interacting in, hopefully, a more typical America.
The Station Agent, made on a shoestring budget and shot in less than three weeks on location in New Jersey, is about the loneliness and isolation, either self-imposed or otherwise, of its three main characters. Among these and two minor ones, besides the solitary and struggling lives most of these people endure, there is also misanthropy, depression, anger, attempted suicide and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
And running through it all is the secondary theme of the study and viewing of trains. The train connection is the catalyst which makes friends of the first two strangers. One is a leave-me-alone type, who at first resists any human contact whatsoever, but is soon lifted out of his seclusion; the other, who is over friendly but easily entertained, with an almost childlike directness, is rewarded for his persistence.
Everything—characters and feelings, motives and inhibitions, plot and dialogue—is conveyed with simple and subtle sincerity. In his directorial debut, Thomas McCarthy, who also wrote the screenplay, and cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, not “best known” for particularly anything (perhaps for some long-running American TV series), have created a little world, another view of small town America. Not, this time, a Western ranch or a backwater in the South, but rural New Jersey, a neglected, and as seen here in this little enterprise, a fertile source for film.
Beyond the frequent jokes made about the filth and poverty of its big cities, here are the clean woods and beautiful landscapes of another side of New Jersey—Lake Hopatcong, Rockaway and, most important to the plot, Newfoundland, where much of The Station Agent was shot. The characters inhabit these settings naturally, unassumingly, and in their respective flights, draw some kind of intrinsic strength from all the nature around them.
Being a train enthusiast since my pre-teen years and seeing the famous orange and blue boxes for Lionel train cars and accessories, I was immediately drawn into the story. Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage, a native of New Jersey, and born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism) loses his job at a Hoboken model train shop when the owner (Paul Benjamin) dies. The owner has willed Finbar some property that includes an abandoned, dilapidated train depot. What seems like simplistic stuff sets the tone of plot and movie, but not the extent of the characters’ problems.
McBride is antisocial and speaks in monosyllables, mainly because he’s self-conscious about his size. He’s scoffed by grammar school kids and by teenagers who should know better. He moves into the depot. Outside, it needs a paint job, inside a good cleaning and new furniture. Never mind: it’s an ideal place to accommodate his solitude, his little nook away from the world.
He’s soon pestered by the gregarious Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale) who operates a snack truck for his father, who is in the hospital. He parks the truck on a gravel expanse opposite the depot and sets out one of those single-mold plastic tables and some plastic chairs, topped with a beach umbrella for shade, and—dare it be said!—a bit of chic dining, alfresco. (It’s never clear why the truck, being mobile, never goes anywhere else around town for customers.)
The proximity of truck and depot seems to make inevitable a meeting of Finbar and Joe, however resistant one of them might be to any kind of association. On their first meeting at the snack truck, unavoidable because of Joe’s doggedness, Finbar makes it clear he wants to be left alone, though he does finally introduce himself as “Fin,” another monosyllable word, then walks away.
Next, Joe knocks on the depot door and, somehow, they begin to meet, to share snacks at the plastic table. Before long, they are walking the tracks and sitting together on a bench and watching trains pass a few yards away. Fin compares the trains’ passing against a timetable. The track is part of the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway; presumably, with McCarthy’s tiny budget, filming trains—and shots of moving trains are numerous—was timed to the railroad’s schedule, rather than incur the great expense of chartering a train.
By the time Fin and Joe are walking the tracks together and sitting down on a trestle, the two are joined by Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), a painter whose house is visible across the way from the depot, almost in perfect line with the snack truck. She is lonely and depressed over the death of her young son, and argues with her ex (John Slattery), who occasionally imposes upon her time and sensitive disposition, resulting in her attempted suicide. (The paintings seen in her home are actually the work of actress Jessalyn Gilsig, currently starring in the Canadian TV series Vikings.)
Olivia gives Fin a camera, and while racing in Joe’s pickup, Fin films a passing train. They have dinner at her house, watch Fin’s film and even sleep over. They go for rides in her car, meet for lunch or a drink and sit on her front porch, immersed in small talk.
Joe is so eager to have a friend that after some simple diversion, like throwing rocks at the tracks and the creek beyond, he’ll say something like, “This isn’t so bad” or “We’ll have to do this again, okay?” In one little exchange among the three of them, Joe says, “Hey, listen. If you guys do something later, can I join you?”
“We’re not gonna do something,” Fin replies.
“No, I know, but if you do, can I join you?”
Fin reiterates, “We’re not gonna do something later.”
“Okay, but if you do?”
“Cool,” Joe replies.
A little black girl, Cleo (Raven Goodwin, then 11), also lonely and at first unresponsive to Fin’s questions, joins him in walking the tracks and soon joins the other two “train watchers.” Cleo wants him to deliver a speech about trains to her school class. He refuses. While playing in an old abandoned passenger coach, she asks Olivia if she wants to see her spike collection. Olivia doesn’t understand. It’s her collection of railroad spikes, she clarifies.
Young Emily (Michelle Williams) is also one of the forlorn of the town. Fin tries to defend her against a belligerent boyfriend by whom she is now pregnant, but is pushed aside. Later, Emily shows up at the depot to apologize and spends the night: Fin shares the battered sofa with her, though sleeping at opposite ends, toe to toe.
At the Mill Lane Tavern one night, Fin, after making such progress in making a few new friends, reverts to his withdrawn self, becoming depressed and drunk. He stands up on a bar stool and shouts, “Here I am! Take a look! Take a look!” Staggering home afterward down the middle of the railroad track, he stumbles in front of an approaching train, which passes over him without an injury. Only his railroad watch is smashed.
Fin finally agrees to speak before Cleo’s class. Once again, as so often before, he’s made fun of, now by a little boy, who bluntly asks, “My, how tall are you?” Another boy, less impressed by the train stories, says that blimps are better than trains.
That night, in the closing scene of the film, the three friends, Fin, Joe and Olivia, are sitting on Olivia’s front porch, listening to Fin relate his experience at the school, and the subject of blimps is given a sincere study.
In keeping with the shoestring budget, though Stephen Trask is credited with the music, the soundtrack consists mainly of carefully selected recordings by a variety of artists. This approach doesn’t intrude, as is so often the case, as much as it flavors and emotionally complements the screen. This blend features country singer Ed Burleson rendering “Dream World,” blues and folk artist Alice Stuart singing “I Ruined Your Life,” Sourcerer taking on an arrangement of “Aura Lee” and a blend of other songs, including “Subclassic,” “Readying” and “Silver Electric.”
It’s tempting to presume that anyone who fails to appreciate The Station Agent is out of touch with the need of friendship and the beauty of nature, even, if somewhat obscure, the fascination of railroading. Seemingly lost amid the majority of films today with quite different themes and a faster pace, the film is quiet yet quirky, where the down-to-earth simplicity of the dialogue is individually matched with the characters’ personalities. That makes sense, as McCarthy tailored the three main roles for the actors who play them.