Review by Rich Watts
Posted on 31 January 2005
Source Miramax DVD
A fine example of an independent film which deserves as much attention as its film festival success suggests, The Station Agent is an absorbing, simple film that brings three misfit individuals together whose sum is greater than the parts they separately provide.
The story centres around Finn, a 4’5” dwarf who inherits a disused railway depot from his friend and boss Henry. Growing tired of the attention his stature attracts in town, Finn decides to abandon his current life to live in the middle of nowhere. In doing so, he sets himself up at the depot and passes time by indulging in his love of trains through reading books, exploring old carriages and “walking the right of way”—an expression describing the pastime of walking along old rail-tracks. Although an attempt at the quiet life Finn longs for, his presence in town soon attracts unwanted attention and for all Finn tries to shun their endearing advances, Joe and Olivia—the local hot-dog vendor and artist respectively—eventually wriggle their ways into Finn’s life. Thus ensues a friendship between the three that means more to each one of the individuals than they probably care to acknowledge.
Admittedly, the premise doesn’t sound overwhelmingly appealing—the basic idea being a train enthusiast living in the middle of nowhere—but writer/director Tom McCarthy has created an endearing, thoughtful and humorous study of the way in which people perceive each other and the development of relationships based on those perceptions; The Station Agent also points towards such individuals’ places in society as a whole. Clearly, the primary tool for exploring perception and relationships is Finn: if he were of ‘ordinary’ height then the film probably would be boring; but since the casting of a dwarf in a role that isn’t slapstick/humorous is unusual (think Austin Powers), then having one as the lead provides an original and captivating narrative which immediately challenges the viewer’s own prejudices and maintains itself throughout the film’s duration.
The dwarfism of the lead character is both the central point of the film as well as a potential irrelevance. If it wasn’t for the fact that Finn is a dwarf, the viewer wouldn’t be so conscious of everybody else’s view of him; as such, The Station Agent is (as the title would suggest) entirely about Finn. Then again, since Joe and Olivia make little explicit reference to his stature, Finn’s height is incidental, permitting the viewer to observe his burgeoning relationships with Joe and Olivia. Thus, The Station Agent is also entirely about the dynamic of Finn, Joe and Olivia, how it matures with time and what it represents in an essentially superficial society.
This dynamic is a curious one, for it only implicitly expresses the relationships between each individual whilst at the same time acknowledging their dependence upon each other. Joe, Olivia—and obviously Finn—each have their own issues, all subtly stated in the gentle development that perpetuates the film. From inauspicious beginnings, and through seemingly ordinary circumstances, the bond formed between the three comprises a unit in which each plays a different role according to need: Olivia, for example, acts as mother, as lover and as sister to both Finn and Joe. In this unit, Finn, Joe and Olivia have all found in each other new pastures beyond the complications of their own lives; they reside, literally, in the Newfoundland suggested by the sign on Finn’s railway depot.
One of the most appealing factors of The Station Agent is its sense of fun. In a fashion similar to the Coen brothers’ work, secondary characters aren’t simply included to move the plot along but also to provide moments of humour. Examples, such as the train enthusiast commenting on the tunnels in Canada (“This was one of the darker tunnels in Canada”) or the dizzy blonde screaming with fright when she first sets eye on Finn in the library, not only amuse but also lend an air of honesty to proceedings for good measure: train enthusiasts generally are bores, whilst the site of a dwarf would make most of us react peculiarly. There are a couple of appealing visual gags included as well, not least of all the shot of Finn with a ‘Frozen Novelties’ sign in shot behind him moments before he is photographed by a curious shop assistant.
Such small touches are essentially frivolous, and whilst the cinematography otherwise serves a purely functional role, one shot in particular represents the entire spirit of the film: as Finn takes his suitcase and walks along the streets of his hometown, a static camera from atop a building looks directly down on Finn’s lonely figure, refusing to pan as he navigates his path out of shot and beyond a building’s edifice. From this angle it is impossible to determine Finn’s height; all that can be seen is his stature as one lonely man navigating the walls that society has built around him. The Station Agent suggests that everyone guards their own destination—it is an extended metaphor for walking one’s own “right of way” whilst embracing family and the company of others on their own “journeys”. As such, Finn, though short in stature and reserved by nature, could very well be any one of us.