Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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In THE STATION AGENT, first time Writer-Director Tom McCarthy has created an amusingly respectful and gently respectable film on the themes of diversity, loneliness and grief.
As the picture begins, Finbar McBride (Peter Drinklage) is in the back of a hobby shop in Queens, where he has worked for many years, making and repairing model trains. To Finn, who stands just four feet, five inches tall, his boss, Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin), a black man, has been a benefactor and guardian. Henry is leaving for the day after giving his assistant some instructions. A moment later, Finn hears a thump at the front of the store, and he finds Henry collapsed on the floor, dead of a heart attack.
That's the way things tend to happen in THE STATION AGENT. We can see plot pieces snap into place, but the film's characters and the performances are so good, we don't care.
It follows that Finn's inheritance from Henry would be an abandoned railway station at Newfoundland, New Jersey. Such places, a few decades ago, were said by New Yorkers, to be "in the wilds of New Jersey," and the actual Newfoundland does seem at least rural and out of the way.
All over America, there are such places which have thrived or withered because the Railroad "stayed or left."
The stations, with their anteroom, storage and baggage repository, and station agent's living quarters, can still be found across the country, long after the passenger services were curtailed in the 1950's. Desirous to drop their utility contracts with the Interstate Trade Commission, in favor of profits from freight handling (then under attack by the truckers), the Railways colluded in dropping passenger services with Detroit, which wanted more of us in automobiles. The stations that remain are often modest cathedral-like structures of wood, or church manse-looking places of brick, for the Railways were the true religion of America for over 100 years. Now, most of those not destroyed are gift shops, restaurants, information centers, or house other kinds of businesses.
And then, there is the one to which Finn brings his belongings, an abandoned station like the one supposedly at Newfoundland, N.J. It is a typical rectangular, roof-beamed building next to the rails, which still carry goods and materiel shunted back or forth by work engines. The place is at once a lonely but welcoming structure, standing behind a small parking lot, surrounded by summer weeds; indeed, it is in a surprising New Jersey wilderness left by the elimination of the passenger trains.
The only one to welcome Finn is a fey, pudgy black girl, Cleo (Raven Goodwin -- LOVELY AND AMAZING, 2001), who seems to have nothing to do but moon around Finn and the abandoned railway site.
A thoughtful, still grieving man in his thirties, Finn sets off on foot to join the local library. On his way, he is nearly run down by an SUV, recklessly driven by Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), and once at the library, Emily (Michelle Williams), the cute blonde town librarian, positively glows in Finn's presence, as she takes down his information. Finn matter-of-factly ignores the accidental attempt on his life, and politely deflects the Librarian Emily's curiosity and interest.
On the way back, Finn is nearly run down a second time by a rather juiced Olivia. She brakes her car and runs down a wooded hill to rescue him. And so, Finn's first real friendship in Newfoundland begins.
Olivia, a dithery redhead in her early forties, is an artist and a somewhat despondent mother, who nurses her muse and an unforgettable loss with a touch of the grape. Her marriage has broken up, after the death of her only child, a son, and she lives in what looks like a summer home with her paintings. She cannot stand to be with her estranged husband's social set, but she is attracted to Finn, and presently appears at his front door with bottle in hand -- as a peace offering.
But the story which Writer/Director McCarthy tells is an "non-menage-a-trois" because there is a second male -- tall, handsome, humorously virile Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale -- "The Third Watch" TV series, 1999-2001). Oramas is a Cuban-American, also from Queens, who pinch-hits for his ill father, running a snack truck, which he parks every morning in the station lot. This arrangement allows the three principals to meet because not only does Olivia stay overnight at the station, but she loves cafe con leche the way Joe makes it.
Joe, for his part, has had his eye on Olivia for some time, and he takes either a matchmaker's or a voyeur's interest in bringing Finn and Olivia together. It is not long before the three begin to take long walks along the railway track together, and generally hang out.
Nothing much happens in THE STATION AGENT, and what does, often undercuts the fragilely believable friendship this trio of lonely people forms. For instance, when Finn defends Olivia against her husband, it works because he is doing what we would expect a man to do, but after Finn is encouraged by a couple of local young bums to get drunk at the local tavern (also located in an old train station), he stands up on the bar to vent his anger. That calls attention to his small stature, which we often forget. In such moments, the movie reminds one of what may have been its origin: Three monologues or performance pieces, somehow spliced together. Stephen Trask's "cute" score does not help much in such a delicate project.
Drinklage, Clarkson and Cannivale are fine individually. Strong and handsomely proportioned Drinklage immediately seizes the audience's attention and never let's it go, even when he must play the scene above. Clarkson, for personal reasons, brought tears to my eyes, and beyond that she is just very good. And Cannivale, who might possibly become a big star, is believable as a personality. We've all known the kind of pleasantly leering, harmless sort of guy he creates here.
But Screenwriter McCarthy has left too many holes in his plot for Director McCarthy to fill. [Did I not just write something similar about Writer/Director Stephen Frears' DIRTY PRETTY THINGS?] The problem is mainly with Joe's verisimilitude and how he dovetails with the other two characters. In example, how can Joe (or his father, for that matter) pay for the gas, insurance, and upkeep to drive this snack truck every morining out to a deserted parking lot in Newfoundland, N.J., in hopes that Emily will come along for a cup of coffee, or that some other wanderer will stop? That's not the way the snack truck business is set up.
And we wonder why Joe, who -- if we are to believe his cellphone conversations -- belongs to a swinging crew of young men and their girl friends, should be so fascinated with his new found [pun?] friends? He seems much too gregarious to be satisfied by communing with New Jersey flora and fauna. Perhaps, Finn and Emily are an outlet for his sensitive nature, away from "the guys."
Finally, Raven Goodwin's Cleo is something of an awkward afterthought, a character to fill in between scenes with the lead characters. (The suspicion arises that Writer McCarthy just decided to throw a young person of color into the mix.) And Michelle Williams' Emily, undeniably pretty, is an extra gear, not really attached to anything or anyone in the Movie.
Go to THE STATION AGENT for the performances, and its good intentions, but unlike the advice of many critics overcome by its sentiments, and despite its film festival awards (including Sundance), do not expect it to be an entirely satisfactory movie -- more a three shaggy character tale.
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Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12