The Station Agent

The Station AgentYesterday, as noted, I watched The Station Agent (2003), directed by Tom McCarthy, in which Peter Dinklage plays the role of Finbar McBride.

Several weeks after his friend, boss and fellow train aficionado Henry dies, Fin learns that Henry has left him an old train depot in the Newfoundland area of New Jersey. Recognising an opportunity to claim the solitude and self-defined life he craves, Fin moves into his new house, only to find himself being drawn irresistibly into the lives of others – in particular Olivia, who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her son two years before and the break-up of her marriage; and Joe, who, beneath his unstoppable desire for conversation and fellowship, appears to be quietly harbouring his own struggles with his father’s illness and growing dependence on him.

It becomes apparent that Fin’s desire for distance from others is a response, at least in part, to his experiences as a man who happens to be a dwarf. (He also happens to be an introvert who is not, at the start of the movie, in the habit of looking beyond his own direct interests and comforts. Not that you can blame him.) Although The Station Agent is firmly centred on the rich interactions between Fin, Olivia and Joe and, to a lesser degree, Emily (the librarian) and Cleo (a local schoolgirl), it is also laced with closely observed moments in which Fin is stared at, mocked, overlooked, questioned and doubted – and just plain treated differently – because of his dwarfism.

In fact, the film is a brilliant, living and breathing expression of many of the kinds of experiences described in the chapter ‘Dwarfs’ in Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree.

For example: Fin is waiting up at the store counter to pay for his basket of groceries. Although the sound the basket makes as it meets the counter is perfectly audible, it isn’t until the other guy at the counter says something that the woman behind the cash register turns around. The man gestures towards Fin, who was there first. ‘Sorry,’ she says, turning herself towards Fin ever so slightly and staring down at him. ‘I didn’t see you.’

Two acquaintances of Joe’s friends roar up to his lunch wagon in their 4 x 4 – uncomplicated guys who just want a good time. They spot Fin leaving his house and heading off on his customary walk along the train track. Hilarious! ‘Da plane! Da plane!’ one of them calls out, to Joe’s acute discomfort, mimicking the dwarf Tattoo from the opening sequence of the TV series Fantasy Island. ‘Fuckin’ Mini Me,’ responds the other. And on it goes, until they’re back in the truck and on their way.

At Cleo’s passionate insistence, Fin finally overcomes his reluctance and goes along to speak to her class. One of the boys in the class, knowing full well what he’s doing, smirkingly asks, ‘How tall are you?’, before he is hauled out of the classroom by the teacher.

Joe’s intrusive questions about Fin’s sex life typify a huge curiosity about the dwarf experience, but in a way that is (possibly?) more male-oriented. And at one point, walking behind Fin, Joe dusts something off his shoulders – a gesture it is difficult to imagine him performing with any other male apart from, say, a little brother.

Some moments are so subtle it is hard to put your finger on exactly what is happening. When Fin overhears the owner of Good to Go taking a delivery order over the phone from Olivia, and offers to take the groceries to Olivia himself, his offer is met with distrust. ‘You’re going to have to pay for it, you know, before you leave the store,’ the store owner warns him. As if being shorter renders him less responsible or trustworthy.

But there are beautifully rendered moments that toy with our expectations as well. The lead-up to the classroom scene and the early moments in the classroom have us thinking that Fin will be forced to stand there in front of the class and answer questions about being a dwarf. In fact it’s not immediately clear, until he begins to speak, that Cleo has actually asked him along to talk about trains. But then Fin – and we – are thrown when the discussion unexpectedly turns from trains – about which everyone else except Cleo couldn’t give a toss – to blimps. (And yes, we should have given that young girl more credit.)

There’s also a scene where Joe, as he dishes up a delicious meal for Fin and Olivia, says to Fin: ‘So, do you people have clubs?’ There’s an awful silence in which we are poised, with Fin and Olivia, thinking He can’t actually have said that, can he? Before he continues – ‘You know, like, “Train of the month”.’


Fin (Peter Dinklage), Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) and Joe (Bobby Cannavale)

The more I think about the film, the more nuanced it seems. The way Olivia, Joe and Fin hardly touch on their troubles in their conversations with each other. The long, awkward silences and missed moments that convey as much as anything can of what they are each going through. Olivia opens up to some extent with Fin, but neither Joe nor Olivia has any idea about the night in the pub when Fin has finally had enough. Fin and Olivia also seem oblivious to what is going on with Joe. His apparent neediness is a shared source of amusement, when Fin jokes (very uncharacteristically) to Olivia that he moved to the area to be close to Joe.

In fact, I think The Station Agent is, as much as anything, about how relationship with others – friendship in particular – can give you a kind of freedom from your personal prison, no matter what that prison may be.

Joe, still young, stuck for who-knows-how-long in a tiny community that has little to offer him, is straining desperately to find something beyond the restrictive role of carer for his father, who seems (although we only ever ‘see’ him through Jo’s end of their telephone conversations, and Joe’s comments) to be otherwise on his own. It is not so surprising that a walk along the train track with Fin, as ‘boring’ as it might seem on the surface, represents a kind of joy and liberation that Joe might not otherwise have experienced.

Likewise, Olivia is trapped in her prison of grief; and Fin in the dual prison of his own solitary nature and the way that so many others insist on seeing him.

It isn’t that the friends understand each other perfectly or see each other in an ideal light, or that they can solve each other’s problems. Even the sensitive Olivia cannot hide, in a moment of extreme distress, that she somehow sees Fin as a child-man; a man who might see her as ‘mother’. But the fact that they are present for each other and have an unthought-out, genuine need for each other’s company, offers them each a means to something better, something beyond the confines of what they are in themselves.

Fin is not a perfect person. For his own sake and others, he could do relationship a lot better, for a start: taking more responsibility for initiating interactions, and being more aware of what’s going on with others. Though one could argue this is fundamentally not in his character, he clearly undergoes a change in the course of the film as he starts to care more about the others and to see into their suffering.

But there’s a lot that happens to him that is simply beyond his control; and the same could be said of what is going on with the other characters. Thankfully, the film manages to delicately balance what can be changed, and what cannot, ending on a note of very real acceptance and hope.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

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