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Track star
The Station Agent has classic stature
The Station Agent
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy. With Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Raven Goodwin, Paul Benjamin, and Michelle Williams. A Miramax Films release (88 minutes). At the Kendall Square and the Coolidge Corner.

Hollywood couldnít operate without stereotypes. Which is not much comfort to all those ó blacks, Asians, gays, women, Arabs, Jews, etc. ó it maligns. Not to mention those groups whose denigration scarcely raises a PC eyebrow. Dwarfs, for example. Snow White, Hervé Villechaize, Mini Me ó these mocking celluloid comparisons all come up in the course of The Station Agent, Tom McCarthyís genial, hilarious, and heart-rending look at the universal plight of loneliness and loss through very unusual eyes.

When the people in the film first see Fin (Peter Dinklage), their response is invariably to mutter, "Holy shit." Viewers might respond similarly when he first appears on screen: a close-up of his ruggedly handsome, melancholy face is followed by a longer shot revealing his full height: four feet, five inches. Itís a visual jolt, but you forget as soon as Fin speaks, his voice as silky and modulated as a late-night-jazz DJís. He doesnít say much, though he conveys layers of irony and nuance with words like "yeah" and "hi." Such laconic resonance comes only from a lifetime of injury and its resultant, uneasy wisdom, and Finís resignation to a hermitís life seems understandable after heís shown shrugging off the insults of everyday life ó the taunts of kids on the street, a checkout clerk who fails to see him behind the register.

But heís found a niche, of sorts, working in the Golden Spike, a Hoboken model-train shop, with his friend Henry and attending meetings after work with his fellow train enthusiasts. Then one night Henry drops dead, and his will bequeaths to Fin an abandoned railway depot in desolate Newfoundland, New Jersey. In a way, itís Finís idea of Heaven: complete isolation amid the relics of dead trains. But the weather-beaten Newfoundland depot soon grows as busy as Grand Central Station. Joe (Bobby Cannavale, as irresistible as a big puppy), an extroverted but sweet-natured Puerto Rican, parks his hot-dog van on the property and insists on serving up his small talk with Finís café con leche. Olivia (Patricia Clarkson, again proving sheís one of Americaís best actresses), a recluse mourning the death of her son and estranged from her husband, almost runs Fin over in her SUV, twice. Cleo (Raven Goodwin, vastly appealing but not cute), a lonely grade-schooler, bumps into Fin while heís "walking the right of way" along the train tracks and shyly befriends him.

Whether he likes it or not, Fin serves as a mirror to all, revealing who they are by reflecting their shortcomings. For Joe, whoís all talk, heís someone who listens. For Olivia, heís her lost child. For Cleo, heís a kid like her but with the confidence and power of an adult. And for the losers who abuse him, heís someone to pick on whoís not their own size. Heís none of these things, of course, and when he tries to become something more ó his relationship with Olivia gets especially complicated and painful ó his confused efforts end in a stunning sequence of drunkenness, rage, and self-immolation.

All of which is much needed at that point. For a while, The Station Agent seems content to keep circling its tracks, with Fin, Olivia, and Joe cheerfully eating lunch by the hot-dog van or drinking wine on Oliviaís porch in an endless series of charming but increasingly innocuous montages. But director Tom McCarthy is just gathering steam. Heís a filmmaker of the long-take, little-dialogue school thatís Kaurismäki by way of Jim Jarmusch with origins way back to the Lumière Brothers (at a meeting of Finís fellow "train chasers," a video is shown that might be a nod to their 1896 landmark Líarrivée díun train à la ciotat). For McCarthy, whatís in the frame untouched by editing is more important than how the images are chopped together, and though the film drifts a bit in the middle, this æsthetic perseveres. His realism borders at time on the surreal; whenever Fin is in a scene, the effect on scale is a often a little dreamlike. But it also restores humanity to stereotypes.

In his longest speech, a late-night heart-to-heart with Olivia, Fin reflects on his stature. "Itís funny how people see me and treat me. . . . Because Iím really a very simple . . . and boring person." Simple perhaps, but given life by McCarthy and Dinklage, never boring.

Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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