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Secretive agent

Station Agent takes fresh look at film alienation


In Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo’s 1995 farce about the making of an indie film, actor Peter Dinklage played a surly dwarf cast in a dream sequence. In one memorable scene, Dinklage’s character hilariously berates the director out of rage that his physical presence alone was supposed to convey psychological weirdness.

The Station Agent provides Dinklage -- who, at 4 foot 6 inches, is an actor whose presence in films will always be dictated by his physicality -- with something far more than dream-sequence status. In The Station Agent, Dinklage gets a life -- and a rich and compelling one at that.

Thomas McCarthy's The Station Agent invests Dinklage with an agency that extends beyond his physical presence. The film is about Fin McBride's (Dinklage) height and how he is treated by a society apt to see him as a walking punch line, but The Station Agent does not confine him to that role.

Fin labors peacefully in an old-fashioned model railroad shop in a quaint corner of Hoboken. But when his kindly employer dies and bequeaths Fin an abandoned train depot in an obscure slice of Newfoundland, N.J., Fin must leave his comfort zone.

In Newfoundland, Fin becomes the one thing he would clearly most like not to be: a spectacle and a conversation piece. Beyond his abbreviated stature, Fin's haberdashery of matte black suits, antique gold pocket watch, hand-rolled cigarettes and obsession with trains attract the attention of several locals. A sour-faced harridan at a convenience store snaps a picture of Fin with a meanness that suggests she could just as easily tear out a hunk of his hair for a souvenir.

Fin also attracts the attention of Joe, a brash, hyperactive New Yorker (Bobby Cannavale), who operates the family hot dog and coffee truck while his father is in the hospital. Bored by the local rednecks, and like most Manhattanites, perpetually on the lookout for something different and "cool," Joe is immediately captivated by Fin's secretive ways.

Fin rebuffs every one of Joe's friendly overtures, refusing offers of companionship or a friendly beer until the puppyish Joe wears him down and the two become inseparable. Equally entranced is a chubby black child Cleo (Raven Goodwin) who seems to believe Fin is her age and wants to know where his mommy is. Dinklage is most often called upon to play drama in Station and he does so well, but the expression of strained patience he wears while answering Cleo's questions shows he is equally capable at whisper-thin, subtle comedy.

Every psychodrama in the town comes courting Fin. The morning of his arrival in Newfoundland, the bereaved Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who has experienced a devastating loss, almost runs him down with her SUV on his walk to the Mini Mart.

As the drama unfolds, the reason for Fin's abhorrence of intimacy becomes clear. With closeness comes pain and in the devastated expression on Fin's face when a distraught Olivia violently rebuffs him, we perceive the history of rejection and hurt that have pushed Fin so deeply into his shell.

In many ways, Fin simply follows in a long line of iconoclastic indie film heroes, from Brad Pitt's pompadoured heartthrob in DiCillo's Johnny Suede to the ultra cool, slouching, lone wolf heroes of Jim Jarmusch's films. Like those exemplars of hip, Fin is surrounded by an air of retro mystique and unflappable cool.

But part of the idiosyncratic beauty of The Station Agent is that Fin is not just some self-styled oddball in a retro suit. He is an actual, inescapable outsider, and his wounded aura gives The Station Agent an unshakable pathos despite its hipster attitude and good humor. Fin's solitude is not simply the conventional individuality of any movie hero. It smacks of enforced, painful separation, of a reflex to keep away from cruel human beings like the kids who openly taunt Fin when he walks home from work, or the smirking yuppies who pass him in the grocery store.

Sweet and wistful without being treacly, The Station Agent makes one understand the condition of being perpetually out of step with the world, but extends the possibility that even someone like Fin can find shelter from its storms.

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