Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a thirtysomething dwarf who wants as little contact with the outside world as possible ignoring the unwanted stares and whispers he receives due to his small stature. His only real passion is for trains and when he unexpectedly inherits an abandoned train station in rural Newfoundland New Jersey he sees an opportunity to change his surroundings and pursue his hobby full-time. Yet as he moves in he again inadvertently attracts attention from an unlikely pair--the talkative Joe (Bobby Cannavale) a Cuban coffee/snack vendor who parks his wagon near the train depot and the flighty Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) an emotionally fragile artist coping with the loss of her son who nearly runs Fin over with her car--twice. Despite Fin's determination to be alone the mismatched trio forges an attachment that is both strangely at odds and wonderfully meaningful proving it is not necessary to be solitary to enjoy solitude.
The Station Agent's gifted group of actors is what make this film a masterful piece of work. Dinklage (Human Nature) is simply a wonder as Fin stoic yet dignified and showing how the character has become bruised and hardened by the years; he doesn't realize his natural non-judgmental charm is far more magnetic than it is repellant. As one of his newfound friends Clarkson brings her eclectic personality into the mix. The exquisite actress has had a steady career with memorable performances in recent indies such as Far From Heaven and a win for outstanding performance at this year's Sundance Film Festival but its The Station Agent that could very well land her a spot on the Academy Award's list come next February. Although the role of a mother dealing with her child's death has been done countless times before Clarkson doesn't rely on the usual overwrought emotional machinations; a guarded reticent Olivia makes you feel as though you the viewer are invading her private life intruding on her very personal way of dealing with grief. Cannavale has the oddly more difficult part of playing the "normal" guy. Even though Joe can be annoyingly cheerful at times underneath he is lonely and craves human interaction during the times when he's not busy taking care of his ailing father. It's Joe who draws Fin out of his shell enough to reveal an intelligent young man who has kept himself hidden away for too many years.
This year's crop of independent films has churned out a few character-driven gems the most recent being Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen and Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation. The Station Agent joins those ranks. Winner of the Sundance Film Festival audience award the film marks the debut of writer/director Tom McCarthy who hits the ball out of the park on his first swing. He does everything right from creating a symbiotic mood to providing the right script for an excellent ensemble piece. McCarthy says his inspiration for The Station Agent came when he was driving through the countryside of New Jersey where he grew up and spotted a deserted train depot. Wondering how this lonely station came to be and imagining what the solitary lives of the "station agents" who tended and lived in these depots were like McCarthy expanded on this theme of isolation. But as the movie explains these agents who tended the now obsolete small town depots also often became the center of the town's activities not only monitoring the train schedules and selling tickets but also selling grocery goods and even cutting hair. It's a perfect analogy for Fin's own powers over the lives of the people he has touched. McCarthy also seems to have fallen a little in love with the idea of "railfans" and "train-chasers " a very real subculture who studies all things pertaining to trains paying particular detail to how Fin gives Joe history lessons on trains as they walk along the tracks.