The Station Agent

The Station Agent
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2003
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Tom McCarthy
  • Running time: 90 Minutes

The Station Agent features a dwarf trainspotter, Finbar (PETER DINKLAGE), who inherits an abandoned rural train station. He heads off to live there and, despite seeking solitude, finds it hard to avoid attention. A distracted artist-in-mourning (PATRICIA CLARKSON) nearly knocks him over and an over-friendly hot-dog vendor (BOBBY CANNAVALE) is forever knocking on his door. In spite of himself, and entirely by surprise, Fin becomes swept up in their lives, finding friendship and romance.

The Station Agent marks the debut of writer/director TOM McCARTHY. He takes us on a charming and engaging journey into a hidden America of misfits and eccentrics, enlivening the scenery with deadpan and slapstick humour, stark emotion and haunting natural beauty.

Shot in 20 days for just $500,000, it earned the Audience Award at last year's Sundance Film Festival (with Patricia Clarkson also winning the Special Jury Prize) and a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay.

McCarthy sees Fin as the latest in a long line of fictional American outsiders, going back to westerns, who have been drawn, against their nature, into action, friendship and compassion. Fin is a loner who arrives in town an exile from his past and ends up galvanising the locals. "He may be different from what you have seen before in a western anti-hero, but in a sense he has that same quiet dignity as a Gary Cooper or John Wayne. He changes the people in Newfoundland and they change him."

Tom McCarthy got the inspiration for the film when he was driving across the New Jersey countryside where he grew up and came across the abandoned train depot in Newfoundland. Its loneliness seemed symbolic and McCarthy decided to use trains as a metaphor for the isolation felt by so many people today. "I especially became fascinated by the railroads’ role in connecting people across the country," he comments. "When trains came to an isolated town in the frontier days, it was like lightning striking, and the station agent became the centrepiece of these new communities." In The Station Agent Finbar plays that role, as the three outsiders become unlikely companions.


The Station Agent


'The film resolutely honours the character's experience: like the empty train depot he inherits, he's set-aside, out of time and gently mouldering.'


As a dwarf, Finbar is used to people finding his height very interesting. 'It's as if he's always walking in as the next topic of conversation.' (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). The woman in the grocery store takes his picture and a sign on the counter says: "Frozen novelties". Fin's defence mechanism is solitude, and a gruff and obstinate refusal to get involved with other people.


In a challenging world, Fin likes the certainties that model trains and railway timetables offer, the unquestioning acceptance by single-minded train fans in train clubs, and, secretly, the possibilities (albeit unrealised) that real trains offer of travel to mysterious and exotic destinations and connection with other people.

When he goes from working on miniature trains in a cramped shop to being just a small part of a scaled-up version in the middle of nowhere, there is suddenly a lot of space around him, and other lonely people start to invade it. Quite literally, when Olivia twice nearly drives into him and everyone seems to want to see where he lives.

The catalyst is big-hearted and big-mouthed Joe, who is as playful as a puppy and also 'like a big kid encountering a newfound pet. His goofy good humour rankles Fin, who retreats further into his turtle-like shell' (Duane Byrge, The Hollywood Reporter). Undeterred, Joe even takes on Fin's love of trainspotting. Meanwhile, Olivia and Emily find comfort in the silences - verbal space - that exists around Fin. Accompanying this forced interaction come enticements of friendship and sex that Fin takes on. Later, when his efforts to interact with the world on its terms fail and he is thrown around by Emily's boyfriend, he tries to re-establish his space by slamming the door of his train depot shut on the larger world outside. What sustains our interest in the film is wanting to know whether Fin will overcome his sensitivity and mistrust or retreat into his private world./P>

Guiding Fin

Fin's taciturn dignity anchors the film, being a rock for the other characters to cling to. We discover that the others are similarly washed up in a foreign place. Joe is lonely because he is ill at ease with the quiet of the country and worried about his 'papi'; Olivia is lonely, following the loss of her child and separation from her husband; Emily is pregnant and living at home. They form a community of strangely compatible oddballs and stroll down tracks 'like mismatched ducks' (Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound).

The film was highly praised by critics for its subtlety and delicacy. 'Little happens on screen but, under the surface, it provides a real emotional workout' (Alan Jones, Film Review). The film is about unvoiced sentiments, so moments when Fin vents his fury are shocking. The director 'has such an appreciation for quiet that it occupies the same space as a character in this film' (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times). Furthermore, 'the stillness is enhanced by plenty of cutaways to empty streets, abandoned railway carriages, tracks leading nowhere in particular' (Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound). The folksy guitar and harmonica score adds to the movie's gentle, reflective tone and the grainy 16mm film the cinematographer uses gives the film a natural, warm look.

'As a testament to vagrant, evanescent human connection, The Station Agent conveys a melancholy sort of joy that is rarely seen in conventional movies these days.'


McCarthy wrote all three main roles - Finbar, Joe and Olivia - for actors he knew and had befriended in theatre. As a result he is able to show 'a real instinct for capturing his characters' largely smothered feelings' (Antonia Quirke, London Evening Standard). His key accomplishment is the fineness with which the characters are drawn. There are funny, touching nuances, such as when Joe reaches out his foot on the stool on which Fin is resting his feet, leading Fin to defend his turf. It's the use of humour above all that draws us in to caring about the characters. 'It's the laconic way with dialogue that gets the ball rolling; a couple of deliciously pithy wisecracks show the warmth breaking through' (Nick Bradshaw, Time Out).

Leading man

Of course, Dinklage's life experience has honed his performance. 'Dinklage just gets on with his performance like an actor who can't understand why he's got the lead role' (James Christopher, The Times). His 'soft baritone and dark-eyed glower are both forbidding and seductive' (Ann Hornaday, Washington Post). Cleo's prying questions draw the warmest response from him, because she is just straightforwardly gathering information, without any other conceptions.

Bobby Cannavale's performance as Joe has been described as the finest of his career, with 'depths of neediness and happiness coexisting in him... and he doesn't bother to separate the warring factions' (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times). It is a mark of the grace of his engaging performance that he 'manages to be ingratiating rather than irritating, someone you like even as he's driving you crazy' (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times).

Patricia Clarkson, meanwhile, is able to portray a range of conflicting emotions. She gives her character 'the wistful tentativeness of a fragile person just barely holding it together' (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times).

The film has been criticised for its attempt to shift gear two-thirds of the way through, in the process 'losing any residual sense of realism as it becomes too nice and over-constructed for its own good' (Jacob Neiiendam, Screen International). The moment when Fin stands up in the bar also came in for criticism, described as 'forced' by Nick Bradshaw in Time Out.

This is an unassuming film that 'privileges observation over plot and sensitivity over style' (Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph). The danger with a 'small' film in which nothing substantial happens is that it might be thought to be 'all a bit of a nothing' (Nigel Andrews, The Financial Times) and that the unsociable main character is indeed "actually just a simple, boring person". Well, this is a film for those who find interest in the way this man's barriers are broken down and for whom it is the journey that's important, not the destination.


The Station Agent



Since his first appearance in Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo’s admired satire on independent film-making, back in 1995, Peter Dinklage has had a mixed film career. Some roles, as when playing alongside Steve Buscemi in Di Cillo’s film and 13 Moons (2002), have been quirky and interesting. Others, such as in Julien Temple’s Bullet (1996), Pigeonholed (1999) and the ill-judged dwarfism comedy Tiptoes (2003), have passed almost unnoticed. Only one film, the crime comedy Safe Men (1998), was a modest commercial success.

Now, however, with his highly praised role as would-be solipsist Finbar and his role as Miles Finch in the box office juggernaut Elf, he appears to have pulled off the neat trick of getting involved in critical and commercial successes simultaneously.

The as-yet-unreleased Jail Bait and a promising return to satire with the reality TV spoof Surviving Eden, planned for later this year, could round off a fine two-year period in film, and Dinklage also has form as an off-Broadway theatre actor and playwright.

Peter Dinklage’s taste for diversity in film is, incidentally, mirrored by his training, which encompasses RADA in London and the Welsh School of Music and Drama in Cardiff.



Patricia Clarkson’s cinema career is also going through something of a purple patch, with critics’ circle nominations from New York to Kansas for her work in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) and The Station Agent. But it was in the modestly budgeted Pieces of April (2003) that she came closest to hitting the jackpot, with an Oscar nomination for her performance as April’s mother. An Emmy for her guest-starring role as Aunt Sarah on the hit HBO series Six Feet Under (2001-3) and major roles in the hit hockey film Miracle (2004) and Lars Von Triers’ controversial Dogville (2003) may make it seem like she has only just arrived on the scene. In fact her screen CV goes back to 1987, when she played Catherine Ness opposite Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. Other notable appearances include Jumanji (1995), The Green Mile (1999) and a spell in TV series Frasier during 2001. She has also enjoyed a long and successful theatre career both on and off Broadway.



Although he has now gained the attention of cinema-goers with his portrayal of the friendly, pushy Joe, it was in theatre and television that Cannavale, who has no formal acting training, previously had most impact. Notable TV appearances include Wilson Jade in the final (2002) season of Ally McBeal, Eduardo Diaz in the 2003 season of 24 and two years (1999-2001) on the emergency services drama Third Watch. He has also had roles in The Bone Collector (1999) and The Guru (2002), and appears in the upcoming films Shall We Dance? and Haven.



Michelle Williams made her name appearing as Jennifer 'Jen' Lindley in TV’s Dawson's Creek from its inception in 1998. She may be pleased that her cinema career highs are no longer defined only by Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), But I'm a Cheerleader (1999) and the Watergate-based comedy Dick (1999). Things are definitely looking up in film terms: she currently has five films under way or in post-production, including Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty and Ang Lee’s Brokebank Mountain.



Paul Benjamin’s role as the model train shop owner is the latest in a long film career that includes Midnight Cowboy (1969), Clint Eastwood’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979) and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989). Benjamin has also starred in various telefilms, although most people will know him from the television hospital drama ER where he has made many appearances over the past 10 years as Mr Ervin.



Barely into her second decade, Raven Goodwin already has one nomination, from the Independent Spirit Awards, for her debut in Lovely and Amazing (2001). In this she played a lively minded eight-year-old adoptee in a family of insecure women.



Having picked up numerous nominations and awards for The Station Agent, McCarthy may wonder why he didn’t get into the writer/director business earlier. Certainly, after training at the Yale School of Drama and racking up credits in the Broadway production of Noises Off, and regional productions of La Ronde and a number of Shakespeare plays, acting must have seemed the right way to go. However, his film credits were modest, save for The Guru (2002), Meet the Parents (2000) and a regular role from 2000 to 2001 on TV’s Boston Public, a high school comedy drama.


The Station Agent

This film can be seen at the following cinemas that provide Film Eye to their customers. Please note this does not guarantee that Film Eye will be available at the time of your visit. Please refer to the SUBSCRIBE page of this website for how to obtain Film Eye direct from the publishers.

Please contact cinemas for screening dates and times.


The Station AgentThe Station AgentThe Station AgentThe Station AgentThe Station AgentThe Station Agent

Click image to enlarge