The past couple of weekends, moviegoers have been getting a big laugh out of actor Peter Dinklage's brief but memorable appearance in the holiday hit Elf. Playing a pompous children's book author, Dinklage is the actor who blasts across a meeting table and destroys Will Ferrell's Buddy after Buddy mistakes him, a dwarf, for one of Santa's elves. Dinklage plays the scene with the ferocity of a man who has had just about enough of ignorant people ridiculing him for his size.
With The Station Agent, audiences get a greater chance to see Dinklage in the principal role of Finbar, a quietly angry man who seems resigned to the fact that the world has its share of judgmental idiots. Finbar doesn't react to ignorant ridicule with rage, but with reservation, sadness and isolation.
When the film begins, Finbar is working at a model-train hobby shop owned by his friend, Henry (Paul Benjamin). Henry passes away and leaves Finbar an abandoned train depot in Newfoundland, N.J., where he takes up residence despite the absence of plumbing and power. He walks the tracks, studies the gutted train out back, and waits for trains to pass by, all the while sending off signals to townspeople that he would prefer to be left alone.
That doesn't stop a trio of residents from practically force-feeding their friendship upon him. Joe (Bobby Cannavale) is manning his father's mobile coffee truck that, for some unexplained reason, is stationed in the business dead zone next to the train depot. Unwilling to take Finbar's persistent rejections as the final answer, Joe insists upon joining Finbar for walks and conversations about trains and women. Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a local child, innocently asks Finbar to attend her classroom and talk to children about trains, an offer he steadfastly refuses. Cleo, like Joe, will not take no for an answer.
Then there's Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who practically runs Finbar over, twice in one day, as he makes his way to and from the local convenience store. Going through a divorce and suffering the loss of her child, Olivia is a distracted personality in dire need of friendship and understanding, even though, like Finbar, she is relatively unwilling to declare it.
Writer-director Thomas McCarthy's film is a treasure. It's a wonderful story about the importance of friendship, especially to those who don't think they need any. When Joe the coffee guy imposes himself upon Finbar's life, and Finbar persists in shutting him out, it's understandable. It's also heartwarming and consistently funny, as Joe doesn't so much break down Finbar's defenses, but instead finds a way into the man's life through an obscured emotional side entrance.
McCarthy's story provides much laughter, and a fair share of sadness as well. When Olivia begins to unravel under the weight of her current tragedies, Clarkson handles the transition with startling rage, continuing to fuel her reputation as an actress of extreme power. Dinklage's reaction to her rage--devastation after investing himself and caring about another--hits home.
With the award season arriving, Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale should all receive consideration. Dinklage's performance is one of the more perfectly modulated characterizations on screen this year. His stoicism in the face of good and bad, and his dry wit, make him a character of great impression and resonance. The moment when his reservations go away, and he shouts with drunken anger at gawking bar patrons, is a knockout.
The Station Agent, thanks to McCarthy's sure hand and the work of Dinklage and company, is one of the year's best films. It's a film like no other, and a fantastic reminder that friendship is one of life's most precious commodities.