The Station Agent was one of the most
popular films at Sundance in 2003, winning both the screenwriting award
and the audience award. It may be the best-reviewed film of that year,
with 95% positive reviews, according to Rotten Tomatoes. It is rated 7.8
at IMDb. Most people who have seen it have liked it, as you might well
have guessed from its having received the audience award at Sundance.
So why haven't you ever heard of this film?
A couple of reasons:
1. Miramax believed it was a small,
personal kind of film without sufficiently broad appeal to compete
toe-to-toe with the big Hollywood epics, so they gave it a cautious
arthouse roll-out. Actually, "cautious" doesn't say the half of it. After
four weeks, despite great reviews and good revenues per screen, it had
reached only 58 screens.
2. For some reason, they marketed this as a
comedy. While the author does have a sense of humor, it is really just a
real-life character-based drama with a few moments to make you smile, all
of which come naturally out of the characters and situations.
What is it all about? Not much of anything.
In a small town in rural New Jersey, three completely mismatched people
come together because of their mutual loneliness. An upper-middle class
female artist, a Cuban-American hot dog vendor, and a reclusive dwarf are
brought together mainly through the efforts of the gregarious hot dog guy,
who really wants to make friends. Many of the film's best moments are
based on the fact that the three friends really don't have much to say to
one another, but they hang out anyway, because "It's better than drinking
alone." They push each other away, pull back together, and eventually come
to a genuine warmth in their friendship.
The film has a lot of guts. Some examples:
Rather than try to make the dwarf a
sympathetic character, the author wrote him as the world's most boring
human being. He gets off on reading about trains, and is obsessed with
them, even timing their passage to the exact minute. As if being boring
weren't a big enough character flaw, he's also taciturn and dour, and
more than a little bit cynical and distrustful. He's not a bad person,
but he's not a loveable one, either.
There is very little dialogue, and very
little action. A lot of the movie consists of three people sitting
quietly, or walking along railroad tracks. That pacing required three
terrific actors to make the whole thing work, and the director found
them in Bobby Cannavale, Peter Dinklage, and Patricia Clarkson.
I wouldn't normally like this kind of
movie. I was at Sundance that year and I didn't even go to see it because
I read the summary and it sounds like it sucks. Grieving woman, having
lost a child, retires to the woods to paint. Dwarf retreats from a cruel
world. Minimal dialogue. I pictured a film which was slow and boring, not
to mention smugly sensitive. I was wrong. The concept may be precious on
paper, but the execution is excellent. The film is not meant for the
fanboy audience, of course, but it is handled well enough by the director
and actors that it is not boring at all for thoughtful adults, and the
sensitivity is really just a natural level of human compassion and
sharing, not a false kind of Hollywood sentimentality. And there's humor
to liven the pace, so I ended up liking it even though it is not my kind
The film's auteur, Thomas McCarthy, was an actor by
trade. The Station Agent was his first credit as either a director or a
writer. Nice job. If you like low key, personal,
character-based independent films, check it out. It hooked me in against
my will, and it may do the same to you.