A fan of trains and little else, a friend to train-memorabilia-shop coworker Paul Benjamin and few others, Peter Dinklage's character in The Station Agent has opted to deal with the world by minimizing his investment in it. But, being a dwarf, he can't do much about the world's interest in him. Wandering the streets of Hoboken, he attracts curious, unkind stares, which he greets with an expression of barely disguised annoyance. So it's little wonder that when a coworker's death leaves Dinklage with an abandoned-but-habitable train depot in a remote New Jersey town, the promise of blissful isolation makes his scowl melt a bit. It's almost cruel, but ultimately kind, that The Station Agent places Dinklage's would-be hermitage across the way from a hot-dog and Cuban food stand staffed by Bobby Cannavale, a boisterous overgrown kid who, without a whiff of encouragement, takes a liking to Dinklage. So does Patricia Clarkson, a local artist who's learned a bit about isolation as she broods in a lonely house and mourns her son. First time writer-director Thomas McCarthy has a background in acting, and in many respects, he's made a quintessential actors' film. The scenario is thin, the contrivances are easy to spot, and the visual elements are nothing special, but the characters feel as alive as anyone walking down the sidewalk. Best remembered for delivering an angry lecture on the misuse of dwarf actors in Living In Oblivion, Dinklage captures what happens when such anger hardens into a shell. He plays his slow re-emergence into the world so carefully that when he finally cracks a smile, it's as shocking in its own way as the first sight of the shark in Jaws. At this point, the fact that Clarkson distinguishes herself is almost a given, but Cannavale is a real find–he inflates the film whenever it threatens to get stuck in turgid somberness. Ultimately, however, it does get a little stuck, then unsticks itself in a rushed finale. But McCarthy's characters make for good company even in their story's awkward patches, and in a film so unabashedly about the value of friendship, good company goes a long way.
More from The A.V. Club