The Station Agent Review
The Station Agent is the kind of small gentle comedy that you would expect to see come from an independent company, so it's both surprising and heartening to see such a film being backed and promoted so well by Buena Vista/Disney. This is something that should be seen as not only a credit to a major studio, but it also says a lot about the quality of the film itself, an entertaining little drama about a group of misfits in small-town America.
Fin works in a shop, The Golden Spike, catering to railway enthusiasts. When the owner Harry dies, Fin inherits a plot of land in Newfoundland, New Jersey with an abandoned train depot. Fin’s a bit of a loner, so he settles down quite comfortably in the abandoned station out in the sticks in the middle of nowhere. But Finn’s the kind of guy that gets noticed. He can’t go anywhere without attracting attention, without people staring and whispering behind his back. Fin is a dwarf and he’s a little bit tired of the attention, the name-calling, the insensitivity, but more than anything, he’s tired of people treating him like he is a child. Initially, Fin’s a bit wary of the locals – understandably, as one of them, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a divorced local artist, is rather clumsy and almost runs him down in her car. Twice. And Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who is running a mobile hotdog stand for his father, is a little bit loud and pushy for a quiet, solitary guy like Fin. He just wants to be left alone to watch his trains.
The Station Agent is a delightfully droll little comedy – the kind of small-town American comedy that Hal Hartley used to do so well and has since been done so well by Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) and more recently in the very funny Welcome To Collinwood, which also featured Patricia Clarkson. Like those films, the humour relates to the outlandish characters, misfits of one kind or another, with conflicting and contrasting personalities. It edges a little bit on the broad side of realism, the characters backgrounds are never fully examined and the drama in their lives seems a little bit manufactured and over-dramatic towards the end, but the film never stretches to caricature, preferring to leave the characters to inhabit their own personalities in silent contemplation or in expressions rather than in typically expository or explanatory dialogue. It’s a technique that works well, allowing the characters to bond in the warm silence of true friendship, while the dry New Jersey humour drives the film along at a perfect pace that never drags for a single minute. There’s not much in terms of plot development or action and a curious amount of the plot progression relies on the use of mobile phones (I’m not sure if the film is trying to make some point about communication here or if it was a budget consideration), but there is a great deal of humour just in the situation and the characters. The film is gifted with not only strong performances from the principals, the supporting cast (including Raven Goodwin as Cleo and ‘Dawson Creek’’s Michelle Williams as Emily, the librarian) all strike the right note with little gems of performances.
The UK Region 2 release from Buena Vista is encoded for Regions 2 and 4 and is also presented for Italian distribution. The UK release seems to carry across all the features of the recent Region 1 release (reviewed on DVDTimes here by Dave Foster), with the only absence appearing to be the lack of commentary for the very brief deleted scenes.
The video quality is excellent. Strong colours, perfect brightness and contrast – the print is clean and free from any marks or artefacts. There is a little bit of grain in places, which would be inherent in the original Super 16 negative, but it is never excessive. In the main, the picture is sharp and clear, particularly in exterior shots and in close-ups but there is some loss of detail in wider shots, where the image inevitably goes soft and almost blurry. Overall though, this is a fine picture, well transferred.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is strong and appropriately mixed, only really using the front three speakers. The temptation is resisted to overload the soundtrack with tweeting birds in the rear speakers, which it could quite easily have done considering the frequency of silent exterior shots. Instead it relies on a gentle music score, not unlike the recent droll Icelandic film Nói Albinói, that gives added depth and character to the film. Dialogue is mainly centre-speaker based with the music score spread slightly wider in stereo left and right. An Italian 5.1 dub is also included.
Both English and English hard of hearing subtitles are included for the feature only (curiously, as the film is in English), but not for the commentary or deleted scenes. Italian subtitles are provided for both the film and extra features, including the commentary and deleted scenes.
Director Tom McCarthy and principal cast Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale all contribute to the commentary. The ensemble nature of the commentary doesn’t allow much in-depth examination of the film and it remains fairly screen specific, relating anecdotes about the shooting and complimenting each other’s performance. Nevertheless there are some funny moments, in keeping with the tone of the film, as they re-interpret and extrapolate on some scenes. It’s also technically quite informative, with a lot of credit going to editor Tom McArdle.
Five deleted scenes are included, but they are all under a minute long and just extended scenes that were cut back for pacing reasons.
It’s best not to build this up too much because it’s a modest film and if approached without great expectations it will pleasantly surprise. There’s no profundity here and there’s nothing to ‘get’ – The Station Agent is a simple gentle film about people and friendships and coming to terms with who they are and what they have. Inconsequential? Only if you find people’s lives and the ordinary everyday relationships that occur inconsequential. The film gently tugs out the humour from the commonplace, the little connections that draw people together despite their own concerns and natural resistance and it does so with a fair amount of charm and humour.