Pay No Attention to the Dwarf

The Station Agent

The Station Agent is a movie about a dwarf who lives in a train depot, but that’s not what it’s really about. You see, the dwarf and the train depot are screenwriting crutches employed to make the film more distinctive. If you tell an acquaintance that you just saw that one movie about three people forging an unlikely friendship, your acquaintance would look at you blankly; if you tell your acquaintance that you just saw that one movie about the dwarf who lives in the train depot, your acquaintance might say, “Oh, yeah. The Station Agent!” Or: “Well, that could describe any number of David Lynch films.”

The Station Agent was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (apparently an actor by trade), and I wish it didn’t make me feel so dirty, because the dialogue is tart and the performances are exquisite. But McCarthy’s use of a dwarf as his lead feels wrong, cheap, and exploitative.

Peter Dinklage stars as the train-obsessed dwarf Fin, Patricia Clarkson is the grieving painter Olivia, and Bobby Cannavale is the obliviously self-involved and macho Joe. Fin inherits the abandoned train depot in a remote part of New Jersey. Joe sells coffee out of a truck right outside the depot. And Olivia is a customer at Joe’s truck. Yes, this is your typically eccentric independent-film comedy/drama. With a dwarf. Who lives in a train depot.

Through two hideously contrived and cringe-worthy incidents involving Olivia nearly running over Fin — Tee hee! She almost plowed into a dwarf! — Olivia and Fin begin an uneasy relationship, and Joe latches on because that’s what Joe does.

Much of The Station Agent is smart. Olivia and Fin are fully fleshed-out characters, both masters of suppression, and they’re well-performed. And although Joe has the depth, insistence, and eagerness of a loyal dog, he’s a good foil to the darkness boiling inside his two companions. And it’s important to stress that the movie is beautifully human, always engaging, and often fun.

But it is, at heart, not much more than typical light, character-driven indie fare. Beyond the dwarf and the train depot, there’s nothing singular or exceptional about it. It’s a pleasant movie, but it pretends to be more interesting than it really is.

More to the point, nothing is really gained by having the lead character be a dwarf; Dinklage is wonderful, but the dwarf is a prop. With an actor of normal height playing Fin and a little re-writing, The Station Agent would be a lot more boring, but it would also fundamentally be the same film.

McCarthy, for the most part, treats Fin like a regular guy. He only plays up Fin’s condition to create some awkward comedy or for some dramatic effect. It’s disingenuous and a bit distasteful; McCarthy is having it both ways, telling you how unimportant Fin’s physical vessel is while, when it’s convenient, making sure you don’t forget it.

Late in the movie, after Fin has been humiliated by Olivia, McCarthy shoots him as if he were a little boy, not a full-grown man. One could argue that McCarthy is simply using a visual metaphor for Fin’s belittled emotional state, but that’s inconsistent with the character, not to mention really stretching. Fin has been so sick for decades of being looked upon as “different” — actually, of being looked upon at all — that he would never want or accept pity. (When Fin stands on a bar and screams at the patrons to take a good look at him, he just wants to get it over with, in the unlikely event that he can blend in.)

In the end, The Station Agent can be reduced to a scene in which a convenience-store clerk snaps Fin’s picture. Oh, how cruel and insensitive, the audience thinks. Yet here we are, watching a movie probably because it’s that one about the dwarf who lives in the train depot.

I saw the last 3/4 of this film, just from the point where Fin’s friend buys the farm. Never heard of the movie, or anyone involved, except I think I saw the ‘Olivia’ actress was in “All the Kings Men”. Anyway, what came thru to me quickly and helped me from changing the channel was the unlikely friendship of the trio, with one member being someone different from the norm. That was the point, not the fact he was a dwarf. The Fin character could as well have been blind or a paraplegic, except that it would have made it tough to pull off train chasing and taking long walks down the right of way. The point was Fin’s differentness, not his dwarfism, and I think the film did a good job of focusing on that. I didn’t see the “dwarf” business being done as a gimmick. If people have to classify it that way in order to deal with it, well, there it is.

I was pretty lonely being offended by this movie, and your perspective conforms with that of many other people.

Of course the movie is about “difference.” But why must the difference be so extreme?

Beyond that, the movie engages in the behavior it decries.

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