The irascible dwarf of The Station Agent.

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Oct. 16 2003 6:55 PM

Dwarf Star

Peter Dinklage shines in The Station Agent.

Small movie with a big payoff
Small movie with a big payoff

There's a scene in Tom DiCillo's riotous comedy Living in Oblivion (1995) in which the hapless, low-budget art-movie director (Steve Buscemi) attempts to shoot a nightmare sequence with the heroine (Catherine Keener) and an ominous dwarf (Peter Dinklage). After the 10th catastrophe, the dwarf actor begins to scream that every half-assed low-budget nightmare sequence has to have an ominous dwarf, and he stomps off the set in a lather. He's over-the-top (he's now the central figure in the director's nightmare), but essentially correct. In the superficial medium that is cinema, dwarves and giants traditionally signify freakiness—they're proof that Nature can go inexplicable awry. Pity the poor dwarf who wants people to know that the proportions, on the inside, are normal.

In Tom McCarthy's blessedly serene comedy The Station Agent (Miramax), the dwarf protagonist, Fin, signifies something different: our witless overdependence on signifiers. Fin (Dinklage, again) works at an old-fashioned model-train store in Hoboken, N.J. Early in the film, you watch him move through his day and watch the people who pass him register astonishment: some subtly, with a look at each other and a whisper; some broadly, like the kids who say, "Hey, where's Snow White?" or "De plane! De plane!" Fin notices every slight but has clearly trained himself not to let his irritation show. He lets nothing show.

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When the kindly owner of the store (Henry Styles) drops dead, Fin inherits half an acre in rural Newfoundland, N.J., with a tiny train station, long since forsaken. He arrives in town silent, unsmiling, like Clint Eastwood shrunk down, the Dwarf With No Name. Well, he does tell them his one-syllable name, but with reluctance and only when pressed. Then, like Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, Fin begins to attract a band of outcasts. Joe (Bobby Cannavale) used to live in Manhattan but now operates his sick dad's coffee-and-hot-dog truck near the old station: He's desperate to talk to someone—and boy, does he like to talk. Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) nearly runs Fin over twice with her SUV, then shows up at his door with a bottle of bourbon. She doesn't like to talk—except to Fin. Separated from her husband, she lives alone in what was meant to be a weekend house, in mourning for a dead child, painting outsized expressionist portraits of grief. As Fin walks the tracks, he finds another kindred spirit: Cleo (Raven Goodwin, of Lovely & Amazing [2002]), an overweight little African-American girl who scuttles silently behind him.

Fin doesn't invite their confessions or friendship—he's chilly, if not downright hostile. But they open up to him in their loneliness as if they figure he'll understand—of course he'll understand, he's the ultimate outsider. The Station Agent is one of those sentimental movies in which the world itself is cruelly indifferent: It's the characters who labor to warm it up. They reach out compulsively, blurting out confidences; then they get scared or ashamed and pull back or run. The film has a distinctive ebb and flow: As Fin becomes more comfortable with others' intimacies, others pull back and leave him alone again, silently regretting that he'd left himself so vulnerable.

An actor and first-time director, Tom McCarthy works in the deadpan-minimalist mode of Scotland's Bill Forsyth. He's often on the border of cute, but he manages to keep the movie just this side of Customs. It helps that those trains bring a touch of the exotic. No, that's not quite right: The trains themselves are rather ordinary; it's the feeling that Fin and his new friends bring to them that's exotic. Fin scrutinizes the trains' comings and goings with a pocket watch. He seems happiest when walking along the tracks or simply sitting on a bench beside them reading a book—he watches raptly whenever a train goes by. (Those who share Fin's passion can check out the trains and stations of Newfoundland here.) The score, by Stephen Trask, is all soft, pretty banjos—then, out of nowhere (you can't quite believe what you're hearing), a theremin begins to noodle, then fades away, like a passing locomotive.

The movie tickles you with its sudden, mystical intimacies, and with its wonderful actors. The 4-foot-6-inch Dinklage has a brooding presence, a face that surprises by turns with its classical handsomeness and a voice that's incongruously—and perfectly—deep. Cannavale's muscle-bound dufus is a marvel of cocky insecurity. As for Patricia Clarkson, that ravaged ditz: I wouldn't mind if she were in every movie. Michelle Williams brings her understated sweetness to the part of a girl who works in the town library, fights with her boyfriend, and shows up to sleep on Fin's sofa: Another stranger who senses Fin's largeness of spirit. McCarthy goes off key in only one scene, in a bar where Fin drinks himself into a stupor and drunkenly harangues the crowd. It's too obviously a "big scene," and it's unnecessary—Fin's resentment is implicit. (The sympathy-for-the-dwarf rant was funnier in Living in Oblivion.)

The Station Agent ends very abruptly, at a point where you're ready to hang out with it a while. I wanted it to go on and on, but that ending is right. It leaves you the way American movies almost never do: relaxed, receptive, and happy in the moment, not even caring if your train comes in.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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