THE STATION AGENT (Thomas McCarthy, 2003)

A sweet and sentimental tearjerker that bears the stamp of the Disney studio that produced it, The Station Agent is toughened a bit, at the core, by its relentless view of the selfishness of its three main characters—until the end, that is, when, predictably, one comes through big time for one of the other two. A more contrived script would be impossible to imagine, but the writer-director, Thomas McCarthy, attempts to give the direction of his actors an air of casualness and spontaneity. I will leave it to others to decide whether McCarthy is entitled to so ardently manipulate his audience, given that a genuine tragedy is sketched into the background of one of the characters, the accidental death of her child who crashed to the ground from park monkey bars on which he was playing when she turned her eyes away for one second. One thing is for certain: McCarthy has a stomach for cruelty that few of the rest of us could possibly match.

There is much to like about his comedy-drama, though, which takes place in remote, rural New Jersey, to where a thirtysomething dwarf has moved to claim his inheritance upon the death of his sole friend: a train station shack, with a nearby abandoned part of a train. This is Finbar McBride, who is very sure of himself and perfectly content with his own company, and who has developed over the years a high degree of competence at deflecting the rudeness and nosy curiosity of those who can’t leave his size alone. McBride seems to have no need for others, while the Hispanic hot dog and coffee vendor outside his door, who is roughly the same age as he, is a bundle of needs. Terribly lonely for same-age male companionship because he has been taking care of his ailing father when he is not manning his father’s business, Joe Oramas lights upon McBride as a potential friend; but, for the longest time, McBride won’t budge. Still, Joe attaches himself to Fin, tagging along on Fin’s excursions into train-watching and -following. Above all, Fin loves trains. One of the best things about this movie is the subtle, gradual way it shows Fin warming up and giving in to Joe’s endearing, annoying overtures of friendship. Another is the simplicity of both characters: Fin’s boring maturity contrasted with Joe’s big-babyness, which includes not a jot of bigotry against Fin on the score of his dwarfism. These are two decent young men.

It is precisely for this reason that the film enters interesting territory in depicting the mirror-image selfishness of both of them. Joe apparently cannot leave Fin alone, oblivious to the solitude and personal space that Fin desires, and Fin is too busy resisting Joe to reach out and help Joe in any serious way with his debilitating problem of loneliness. Joe needs so much, but Fin will give only so much. A more complex understanding might have suggested the extent to which Joe satisfies some of the needs of Fin’s that Fin has suppressed, but McCarthy prefers to record a more or less superficial friendship more or less superficially. After all, the gallons of tears that his film jerks aren’t over either of the guys.

McCarthy exploits, instead, the suffering of older divorced painter Olivia Harris, the mother of the dead child, for whatever he can squeeze out of it. He pushes the character into a suicide attempt (I’ll leave it to others to determine whether this is fair, or even human, of him to do), before which Olivia shuts her door of friendship to Fin. I will also leave it to others to contemplate the callousness of a soul who, having given this character the tragic past that he has given her, has her, in a pair of sight gags, nearly killing pedestrian Fin by running over him with her car. In any case, Fin seems genuinely concerned about Olivia, and his uncharacteristic keeping at her, despite (or because of) her hostility, puts him in the position of being able to rescue her following her suicide attempt.

McCarthy is fond of sick visual gags, like the tragedy Olivia nearly causes with her reckless or inattentive driving. Another one finds a drunk Fin falling down on railroad tracks at night and passing out just as a train comes hurtling down them. Cut to sunlight, with Fin’s head rising in closeup within the frame: a sudden happy reminder that Fin isn’t big enough to have been in real danger. (OK; I guess I can buy that.) But this is a real problem with the film: apart from these fleeting visual jokes, the film can scarcely be said to have any visual dimension at all. Like Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), The Station Agent is closer to a radio play than it is to a film. It’s listened to, for there is little or nothing about it that is expressive visually. Rather, its visual dimension is pictorial or photographic; scenes aren’t imagined, therefore not realized, visually, although the color photography, in this case by Oliver Bokelberg, enhances the scenes, deepening their impact. Another way of saying the same thing is this: the director is relying on his cinematographer, not vice versa; McCarthy has little or no idea as to what he wants each shot to contribute to the thematic development of the whole.

A euphemistic other way of saying the same thing is to call such a film either, as in the case of Hanson’s convoluted melodrama, plot-driven, or, as in the case of The Station Agent, character-driven—in either case, as far as cinema goes, hack work. Indeed, it is especially disadvantageous for McCarthy’s film to be so “character-driven,” given that only one of the three major characters has any hint of depth, and I have already suggested how brutally the misogynistic McCarthy treats Olivia Harris. I can’t leave this comment to anyone else: It’s alarming the extent to which, given the tragedy he has given her, McCarthy is flat-out uninterested in exploring this tragedy and its relation to human despair, relegating it instead to the mechanical work-through of plot and the character’s participation in this. Parallel to this, if not quite so distressing, is, despite Finbar’s obsession with trains, McCarthy’s utter lack of interest in them. McCarthy isn’t captivated by the romance of trains, nor does he find any vital symbolism in them, as Yasujiro Ozu and Satyajit Ray do. Rarely has a filmmaker projected simultaneously a fine attention to detail and a lackadaisical nature. The details that interest McCarthy aren’t the sort that make for a better, that is, more fully realized film. Preferring “plot” and “character” to thematic development, he is more inclined to décor than to mise-en-scène.

Perhaps because of his cast of outcasts, one of whom is a dwarf and another who is a child (Cleo, an African-American schoolgirl who befriends McBride, warmly and quirkily played by Raven Goodwin), The Station Agent has been compared to Carson McCullers, but I protest; McCullers never exploited the suffering of her characters. She empathetically dove right in. Joe’s loneliness, for instance, is something she would have shown from the inside out. There is cruelty, at times, in the worlds and milieus she portrays; but McCullers is never cruel herself. There is a humanity to her work utterly lacking in The Station Agent, for all its cleverness and indie-indulgence. Carson McCullers never Sundanced around the moon.

Patricia Clarkson, who won a number of best supporting actress prizes for her role as Olivia, is painfully moving. This in part masks the fact that McCarthy cares as little about Olivia as he cares about us. He cares about himself only, and this leaves us with the nagging suspicion that the theme of his film, selfishness, is inadvertent—a solipsistic exposure rather than an idea about human nature rigorously pursued. He has made a highly entertaining movie that by turns makes us laugh and makes us cry—the latter, more than any other movie in recent memory. Question: Is this what an artist does? Two things are lacking in his enterprise: compassion; a reverence for the mystery of all things human. Not only isn’t McCarthy an artist now; he never can become one.

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