The thing I like the most about directors like Alexander Payne is that they get people. They get how people tick. They get the nuances of human emotions, the irrationality of human behavior. They know how people connect with each other, and how easy relationships fall apart. It is no surprise then, that I quickly warmed up to Thomas McCarthy’s films, because like Payne, McCarthy imbues his films with a sophisticated humanist touch that shows an intuitive understanding of human nature.
In The Station Agent, he takes on the character of Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage), a person born with dwarfism. He starts off as reclusive, untrusting and a tad misanthropic. Who can blame him though, when he has faced ridicule and mockery all his life. He has always been a spectacle, a source of amusement, an easy target.
It’s hard not to empathize with Fin. The movie is a meditation on the loneliness and solitude in living in a world too harsh to accommodate difference. Maybe this explains Fin’s obsession with trains – he worked at a model train shop, and when his co-worker and perhaps the only person that he considers anything remotely close to a friend dies, he moves into a dilapidated, abandoned train depot. He finds peace in reading a book beside a railroad track, and monitoring the schedules of the trains as they come and go. Trains are precise, mechanical, and easy to understand. People, on the other hand, are messy, complicated and filled with issues.
It is when he moves into the old station agent’s office that he meets Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), two people who, like him, retreat into isolation because of different reasons. Joe manages his ailing father’s mobile snack truck and sets up shop beside the old depot, where there are almost no customers around. Olivia is wracked with guilt over the death of her son and separation from her husband. The two of them rarely interacted with each other, but it is Fin’s arrival that precipitates their connection.
It wasn’t easy for them to become friends, of course. Part of the movie’s charm lies in Joe’s attempts to pierce through Fin’s ascetic disposition. Joe is the complete opposite of Fin – he enjoys the feeling of being liked and appreciated, and he see’s Fin’s initial rejection of him as a challenge he has to overcome. Olivia has a different motivation for befriending Fin. It is again guilt, this time for almost running him over twice, that initially drives Olivia. But it is also when they share an intimate moment when they reveal to each other that they have recently experienced the deaths of people close to them that they form an even deeper connection.
The delicate friendship that forms between the three speaks of the redemptive power of making meaningful relationships. McCarthy has a fondness of showing that people are better off trusting and opening up themselves to others, however flawed and capricious they may be. After all, it is through his friendship with Joe and Olivia that Fin gets to live out one of his dreams, “trainchasing” or following a train and filming it while driving a car. And it is when Olivia retreats and breaks away with the group that she descends into a spiral of depression and hurts herself. Ultimately, even the coldest person needs the warmth of human company once in a while.
Of course, trusting other people is always a risk. Fin learns this the hard way from Emily (Michelle Williams), the town librarian who tried to seek comfort in his company. When he tries to protect her from her boyfriend, Fin is shoved to the ground by the much larger guy. He is reminded of his difference, that no matter what he does, he will always be seen and received differently because of his condition, which is what drove him to his solitary ways to begin with. Maybe it is more convenient to be just like a train after all – to just let people in temporarily and then drop them off and leave them after you’ve gotten what you need. A relationship of pure utility.
But then again, life isn’t monotonous and rigid like a railroad – it is filled with crossroads, beaten paths, and roads not taken. It helps to have someone with you along for the ride.