If someone asks what my favorite movie of all time is, not just in a certain language, but from all over the world, I wouldn’t know what to say. There is not one single favorite film, especially for a film lover like me. But if the same person puts a gun to my head and asks the same question, without any hesitation, I would say ‘The Station Agent’.
The Station Agent is a 2003 American film written and directed by Tom McCarthy. It stars Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale among very few other characters.
Finn is a quiet man who seeks nothing but a life of solitude. He doesn’t speak a lot and he is a man with dwarfism. He loves the trains and the railroads. He moves to an abandoned train depot that is left by his friend upon his death in Newfoundland, a rural part of New Jersey. There he meets a chatty snack truck shop owner called Joe and Olivia, an artist, along with few other people. The movie is about these characters just going on about their lives. Nothing happens in this movie.
When I say nothing, I mean, nothing cinematic, or quite dramatic happens throughout the whole run time, save for one scene maybe. We really just watch these characters being themselves. There are no major conflicts that need to be resolved before the ending. There are no twists and turns that keeps you guessing. It is a life that we all live, most of us anyway.
Welcome to Newfoundland
The characters themselves move the story with the tiniest of actions. Joe being persistent on coming along for the walk with Finn, the kid following Finn on one of his walks, Olivia offering a gift for almost running Finn over, Finn wanting Joe’s legs off of the table etc. It's these little moments that make the movie and there are many such moments. You are not just watching a movie, you are an invisible person in that town. Every character is etched out so carefully and the script feels complete. Not a moment of extra shrug, or a wasted scene, but still, the movie flows organically. You don’t see the editing, you don’t notice when one scene leads to another. No drama or a twist is necessary to keep you invested because you are already there. This is achieved not just through one single aspect but with all the aspects of filmmaking coming together.
A better performance than Tyrion Lannister
All the performances were brilliant, right down to Harry, Finn’s friend who only has a few minutes of screen time, but he lives on. You really feel the comfort between them as they smoke silently in the dark. Peter Dinklage was stellar in this. I do think that this is easily a greater performance than Game of Thrones. Bobby Cannavale is perfect as a chatty, bored and always excited member of the town and Patricia Clarkson as always, is great in everything she does.
Show, don't tell
These are all the visible aspects that make this film a great watch, but there is one other invisible aspect that elevates this movie to another level. It is Tom Mccarthy’s restrained direction. He shows everything. He doesn’t tell. The movie doesn’t judge its characters, not even the lady who takes Finn’s picture in the convenience store or the kids who are making fun of him for his height. The movie never sides with anyone. You as an audience might, but the movie doesn’t. That’s an important distinction to make. It doesn’t tell you to think or feel anything. The veil that separates you and the movie is lifted in this case and that is why they are not just characters in a story; it feels like they are still living in that rural town.
Tom Mccarthy is great at keeping his direction restrained. All of his movies are like that. I haven’t watched the Cobbler, so I have no clue about that film. But the same kind of storytelling is present in his other films like Win Win, The Visitor and even the most recent, the Oscar winning Spotlight. Restrained storytelling in a subject like Spotlight is tricky because it talks about the priests who molested young children and you clearly know whom to blame. Yet, if you watch that movie carefully, it doesn’t judge, or it doesn’t ask you to feel bad for those children or get angry with the priests. It simply lets the characters interact and make their choices.
Not a lot of directors tell their stories like this. We can see a glimpse of this kind of storytelling in a few scenes with veteran directors like Steven Spielberg, but not throughout their movies. The first scene of the Bridge of Spies is an example of a restrained storytelling.
Denis Villeneuve's Storytelling
Denis Villeneuve did this expertly with a particular scene in his movie Sicario. You already know what scene I’m talking about. It is the traffic confrontation scene. That was brutal. It is a great example of a restrained direction. That scene could have gone down in so many different ways if he had chosen to tell us a little more. But he doesn’t. He just watches the scene go down with the audience and that’s why it has a greater impact than it would have had otherwise.
Relaxed until the end
This kind of storytelling is prevalent throughout The Station Agent and I personally feel that it has one of the best ending scenes in recent times. It could end where it ended, or it could also keep going.
Because when I first saw The Station Agent, I felt a little disappointed about the ending. But after watching the movie, twenty-three extra times, I realized that initially I wasn’t disappointed at the ending itself. I was disappointed with the end of my journey with Finn, Joe & Olivia and that makes it so much more beautiful.