Take the case of The Station Agent, which merely has the distinction of being one of the year's best films. The running time is a brief 88 minutes; to place it in sobering context, that's 10 minutes less than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 33 minutes less than Gigli, and 58 minutes -- yup, almost a full hour -- less than Bad Boys II. Certainly, such an abbreviated length all but guarantees that the picture won't wear out its welcome before the final credits start rolling. Even so, this is our only window of opportunity to spend time with several wonderful and unique characters, and 88 minutes seems almost cruel in its brevity.
But what an 88 minutes! Debuting writer-director Tom McCarthy, off to a blazing start in his new career behind the camera (he's been an actor for about a decade, always in minor roles), has taken a dubious premise and fashioned a striking seriocomic tale out of the material, one that's further enhanced by the lovely performances at its center.
The focal character is Finbar "Fin" McBride (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who works in a shop that specializes in model trains. After the owner (Paul Benjamin) of the store passes away, his will stipulates that Fin will inherit a decrepit, abandoned train depot in a middle-of-nowhere town in New Jersey. It doesn't sound like much, but Fin, who has no friends, no family and apparently no interests outside of trains, immediately packs up and heads out to this rural area.
But Fin's wish for a life comprised entirely of reading, relaxation and railroads doesn't seem likely to be fulfilled, not when there are several people around who have a genuine interest in getting to know this outsider. Most of the residents prefer to gawk, take pictures and/or make insulting wisecracks about his small stature, but the four exceptions to the rule almost make up for everyone else's boorish behavior.
First and foremost, there's Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an artist who's haunted by the death of her young son and presently separated from her husband. Then there's Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who runs a mobile hot dog stand and resembles nothing so much as a human puppy dog, always eager to learn and eager to please. Cleo (Raven Goodwin) is a young black girl who shares Fin's interest in trains and tries to coerce him into coming to her school to lecture her class on the subject. And Emily (Michelle Williams), who works at the local library, is one of those tragic figures of Americana: a lovely young woman whose red-cheeked promise will almost certainly get squashed by her restrictive surroundings, including a redneck boyfriend immediately recognized by the audience as a major-league loser yet defended by Emily as a decent guy "when he's not mad."
Much of the humor in the picture comes from watching Fin do everything in his power to keep these people shut out of his life. Yet gradually, a dormant vein of compassion makes its way to the surface, and he begins to take an active interest in the strangers. His relationship with Olivia is the movie's most complex: Does she view him as a kindred spirit or as a surrogate for her dead child, and does he see her simply as a friend or as a potential romantic match?
Joe, meanwhile, is the sort of motormouth whose needy nature could easily alienate people, yet his extroverted nature and perpetual energy are exactly what the reclusive Fin needs to speed up his departure from his shell. Cleo speaks in that no-nonsense manner as only children can ("Are you a midget?" she asks pointblank; "No" is all the answer he'll give her), and her directness matches that of Fin. And Emily just might be attracted to Fin on both the physical and emotional levels, yet she's such a wounded animal, reaching out for any semblance of tenderness, that it's impossible for us (or even Joe, it seems) to be absolutely sure.
Dinklage, currently seen in Elf but perhaps best known for Living In Oblivion (where his character lambasted the whole trend of dwarves appearing in cinematic dream sequences, concluding, "I don't even have dreams with dwarves in them!"), delivers a superb performance as Fin, making his character sexy in his sullenness but even more glowing as his sensitive nature takes over. And Clarkson, who's having a banner year -- indeed, she received an acting prize at Sundance for this, Pieces of April and All the Real Girls -- locates the right temperament to play Olivia, a fiercely independent woman who won't use her personal tragedy to milk sympathy from anyone.
It can't be a coincidence that the year's two best films both center around lonely, troubled people tentatively making connections with other isolated souls. But like Lost In Translation, here's another movie that compels us to pray that these likable folks manage to cut through the surrounding haze of complacency long enough to form some kind of bond, any kind of bond. Perhaps because of the increasing impersonality of the world around us, many of us find ourselves willingly tethered to film characters we like through a peculiar form of osmosis, one that reverberates whenever they end up discovering each other. The Station Agent is that kind of movie, a splendid human drama about making the sorts of connections that don't require a dial-up tone.