The train has an important place in American mythology — and for good reason — yet as of late, it has become estranged from the culture that created it. Currently, popular America glorifies the place of trains in history, yet treats the real ones like crap. Meanwhile, a fringe element, the train enthusiasts, worship trains as magical transportation objects. Both groups have forgotten the heart, the essence, of what makes trains great: their passengers. Tom McCarthy understands this cultural disconnect and makes it the central metaphor for the best serious drama to come along in a while, and easily the best movie of the year, “The Station Agent.”
The main action of “The Station Agent” centers around Fin (Peter Dinklage) who is one of the aforementioned train enthusiasts — if he can be called an enthusiast, since his disinterested expression never changes. He seems to have one friend in all of New York: the owner of the train store in which he works. But the friendship seems to consist entirely of silently sitting next to each other in a bar. When his friend dies and leaves Fin an old train station in New Jersey (prophetically in the town of Newfoundland), Fin expressionlessly packs up all his things and moves into the station. This is his first step away from the idealistic universe of train models and into real life, and appropriately, the station has no running water or electricity. While Fin just wants to be left alone, Newfoundland is populated by some pretty wild characters, and the actors playing them each give a performance so true, so familiar that we leave feeling as though each one represents someone we know personally.
Outside the abandoned station Fin finds a hot dog stand (according to McCarthy they are only found in the middle of nowhere in New Jersey) with a loud, obnoxious New Yorker inside named Joe (Bobby Cannavale). Fin doesn’t want any friends, but Joe does and he won’t let Fin turn him down. The complexity that Cannavale lends to his portrayal leaves Anthony Hopkins in the dust. He walks the narrow rail between annoying and friendly so stealthily that just when it seems like the last straw has been reached, he’ll tell a joke that is so stupid it’s funny, or say something so nice that he wins us over in a snap. He’s that wonderful friend who drives you crazy but really, truly cares about you.
Fin’s next new friend drives onto the scene a little later when she almost runs him over with her SUV. As she steps out of the car to help Fin, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) acts like a total ditz while revealing her outfit covered in paint stains, and the audience laughs. The fancy SUV lends a sense of safety to the laughter — she must have her life together if she drives one of those — but in fact Olivia’s life is falling apart. That is Clarkson’s genius; she brings on laughter with her seemingly careless behavior, but her face shows the preoccupying sadness that takes her mind away from physical control.
Both Olivia and Joe slowly draw Fin out of his cocoon with the help of Cleo (Raven Goodwin, the incredible child actress from “Lovely and Amazing”), and Emily (Michelle Williams, who charmed alongside Kirsten Dunst in “Dick”). Goodwin does not disappoint, playing her role with a wonderful sense of her body and the mannerisms of a young child. Her character is the only one who truly understands the role of the train station as a gathering force, constantly asking Fin about the other people in his life and begging him to talk about trains to her class for show and tell. Williams plays a beautiful school librarian that smiles her way through most of the film and then, in an incredible facial feat, drains every ounce of happiness from her face in two seconds flat. She is pregnant and doesn’t know what to do, she tells Fin. This devastating omission isn’t melodramatic on the Hollywood, over-the-top scale of “A Beautiful Mind” — she’ll have an abortion and go on. But her suffering is real and hurts far more because we relate to it.
“The Station Agent” is chock-full of these little revelations, modern moments akin to those Woolf wrote about in her novels: the little, private ecstasies and tragedies of day-to-day life. Like those funny moments where only we know what we mean: “You’re like the old guy in the movie who does the telegraph thing,” Williams excitedly tells Fin. Or those nerve-racking moments when no one knows what to say, but everyone really wants to say something. By the end, Fin realizes that collecting trains is far less satisfying than having friends, who don’t always arrive on time but are a lot more interesting. McCarthy quietly lets these people live their lives, gently offering them up to be studied. He gives us all a brilliant look at friendship, at the failure of first impressions or preconceptions, and, most importantly, at ourselves. We are all trains traveling down the tracks of life, and without stations to stop us we never pick up any passengers.
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