`Station Agent' has the right of way

October 31, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Recent mainstream movies haven't exactly been spitting forth self-possessed, charismatic leading men. Peter Dinklage, the star of the charming, even lovable independent film The Station Agent, towers above all others at a height of 4-foot-5.

As a railroad fanatic named Finbar or Fin McBride, who inherits an abandoned train depot in Newfoundland, N.J., Dinklage burns with an adamant sense of self that transcends his dwarfdom and intrigues everyone around him. He suggests a vast interior life and a fierce determination to protect it from intrusion. He uses his eyes and brow to express not belligerence but independence and completeness.

How many actors can provide the mere illusion of inner feeling and imagination? Dinklage does so to such a degree that he becomes a tragicomic hero.

In the beginning, when Fin works in a Hoboken train-aficionados' shop called The Golden Spike, he shares an ineffable rapport with his boss and friend, Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin). Without insulting the railroad buffs who fill the shop at night to watch amateur footage of a "train-chasing" expedition in Canada, Fin and Henry escape from endless shots of tunnels, smoke and snow and go up on the rooftop. The movie's most transporting moment may come when these two share a smoke and listen to Hoboken's night sounds.

The writer-director, Thomas McCarthy, has a marvelous gift for conjuring still scenes fraught with humorous conviviality; he ends the movie with a similar tableau of Fin and two new friends, Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), relaxing on a rural Jersey porch. The movie charts how Fin reinvents his life after Styles' sudden death. Joe and Olivia are the enthusiastic and reluctant catalysts for his renewal.

Cannavale, like Dinklage, proves to be a real find: He pulls off the near-impossible feat of portraying a good-time guy who actually gives people a good time. Manning his ailing father's Cuban coffee truck, which apparently didn't move after Newfoundland ceased to be a train stop, he spots Fin immediately as a figure of interest -- an impression intensified when he sees the reclusive artist Olivia knock repeatedly at the depot's door. Cannavale's Joe is more hungry for companionship than Dinklage's Fin because he appears to be used to it -- and he'll do anything Fin wants to foster it, whether roaming the tracks (or in train-freak's parlance, "walking the right of way") or reading All Quiet on the Western Front while Fin sits nearby reading railroad guides.

Olivia connects with Fin more accidentally, almost running him over twice in a sequence that shows off McCarthy's healthy appetite for slapstick and his female star Clarkson's try-anything spirit.

The film is inspired when it builds on its odd-trio comedy. It dips at moments of pathos, when Fin erupts with rage out of an accumulated sense of persecution, and especially when Olivia's inability to handle the loss of her son and the breakup of her marriage short-circuits the group friendship.

The movie's main point is that no man is an island, not even Fin; the picture would be even stronger if it made its case without jerking tears. But Clarkson is equally terrific at emotional delicacy and farce. And McCarthy keeps coming up with welcome new characters: a schoolgirl (Raven Goodwin) who invites Fin to her class, and a sweet, pretty librarian (Michelle Williams) who falls for Fin literally, then realizes she's fallen for him in all ways. The Station Agent has craft and pace and that far rarer quality, fellow-feeling.

The Station Agent

Starring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale

Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Rated R

Released by Miramax

Time 88 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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