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Est. April 5, 2002
November 01, 2018 - Issue 762

Revisiting The Station Agent:
A Community of the Diverse

"The Station Agent shows us individuals who are not
lonely people but rather individuals mature enough to
be comfortable in the silence - how else to engage in
contemplation? Self-reflection? The appreciation of silence
is what each respects in the other, it’s what makes
being in the company of each other special."

The beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people.


It is not our differences that divides us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.

Audre Lorde

Little Cleo calls her classmate a jerk.

Fin’s offenders deride him for his short stature; so he’s avoided engaging with anyone, except his friend, Henry Styles. For Olivia, the loss of her young son drives her further and further away from herself, and others.

Like Cleo, Joe’s observant. After he and Fin meet David, Olivia’s ex-husband, briefly, he confides: I don’t trust that “uptight white guy.”

Many years ago, when I first saw The Station Agent, (2003), I thought it to be a smart, “feel good” film, with excellent acting from Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Williams, and Raven Goodwin contributing to an enjoyable experience. Back from a year of teaching college in Ethiopia, I was still in a bit of a fog having been out of country when George Bush, Jr. initiated the Iraqi War by sending the “shock and awe” spectacle of warfare to a country, which had nothing to do with 9/11. A day or two before the spectacle was to start, we, eight expatriates spread out across Ethiopia, received our notification: Stay put. Stay in your home for at least four days. Each of you. Wherever you are. US embassy closed. Four days! I thought that by the time I return to the US, Bush would be facing impeachment. But, instead, Bush is planning to run for re-election.

A year later, I’m at a discount store (they existed then) when I saw a VHS copy of The Station Agent in a discount bin. And although I was unfamiliar with the actors in the film, the price was right. And it was a quiet film.

So last week, I decided to rent the CD of this film from the library. I’m sure I could have used a credit card to pay some online movie site to watch the film for, what, 1.99 or 2.99? Or purchase the film online at Amazon. But the rented CD from the library is fine. Progress is fine, too, if it actually moves humans forward.

The other day, the current profit-at-all-cost billionaire US president, declared himself a “nationalist” while the white nationalists in the places where “nothing happens” have been embolden to express their intent to restore American back to the old days. Most of The Station Agent’s is set in Newfoundland, New Jersey, a place I had never heard of, but by the time I see the film the first time, in 2004 or 2005, I’m teaching in a rural, Midwestern town I had never heard of before arriving there. Richard Kind, playing the lawyer in the film, informs Finberg McBride (Peter Dinklage) that “nothing happens” in Newfoundland, the rural town where his friend, Henry, has left him a train depot and an old train car. For Fin, Newfoundland sounds like a fit for him.

Re-visiting the film now, so many years later, I don’t want fantasy! Even as I might be uncertain about the future, I don’t have an image of “old days” to return to for myself or others. On the other hand, I won’t sit and spent almost two hours laughing as if without a care in the world. I do care what happens on the planet. I’m not waiting on a prophesy. So no fantasy. I glance at reviews online only to find all echoing one another with descriptions about “lonely” people, “isolated” people. And I really don’t want to view a fantasy, I’m thinking. I don’t recall much from my first viewing since I was distracted by real-life events, but I would hardly watch a film about “loners.” “Haters.” People so disconnected as to be dislodged from their own humanity. Out of mind, out of sight individuals, fuming while creating or amassing weaponry to kill or to maim. This is not a film I would have considered smart, enjoyable.

There is something more going on in the quiet of Newfoundland.

In the first few minutes of the film, introduces viewers to the friendship between an older black man, owner of a toy train repair shop and his sole employee, and younger man, Fin. Between the two men, neither is a misfit. Both love trains, and everything about traveling on trains. It’s a quiet friendship among equals absorbed by habit, nods, gestures, the steady hand work, and silence. No bromance of today to call attention to a fraternity between two people.

After Henry dies, we see Fin with his one suitcase and satchel, visiting the shop for the last time before taking off, and then traveling most of the distance to Newfoundland by walking the “right of way.” Passing trains speeding forward as he walks, Fin reaches the Newfoundland depot. It’s clearly appears uninhabitable. The exterior of the depot needs new siding. Inside, there’s no running water or electricity, and it seems to have been a storage dump site as it’s a container of old train signs and train parts. But there’s a sofa, a table, and a stove. A start. Just outside his new home, Fin notes, are two plastic lawn chairs, one stacked atop the other, in an otherwise empty and dismal location just near the main road. Strange.

The next morning, Fin awakes to a voice outside his home.

We’re introduced to Joe Oramos, (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban, whose hot dog truck (actually owned by his sick father) displays the Cuban flag on the side facing the depot. Back at his home, is a father depended on him. It’s the father Joe frequently talks to on his cell phone. The father frequently calls the son. It is a relationship for Joe that is all about responsibility. Caring for his father and keeping the family business going.

The two (Fin and Joe) will be neighbors. At least between 7:00 am and 3:00 pm, daily.

Joe knows his responsibilities. He serious about his responsibilities. Serious about working the hot dog stand as his father would while caring for his father at home.

We’ll meet Olivia, (Patricia Clarkson), an older woman, an escapee from Princeton. She has the role of the artist (-in resident), an artist in pain, who paints in a dilly-dally style, rendering images of women with partial faces. Stagnant images. Half there and half not anywhere. It’s no accident that Olivia, herself, her hands and slacks and tank top, are splattered in paint. When Joe and Fin come to the house, it’s Joe who speaks, holy shit!. And Olivia: I heard that, Joe. Fin remains silent.

Olivia drives to Joe’s truck for coffee most every morning. Within twenty minutes of the film’s open, she’s run Fin, accidentally, off the road. Not once but twice! Klutzy, it would seem. She beside herself with disgust. So sorry. Sorry! You’re okay? And then there’s Cleo, (Raven Goodwin), the black pre-teen, from the only house visible, just up a way from Fin’s home. And Emily, the librarian, played by Michelle Williams, isn’t your typical big city librarian.

In other words, these individuals are just people. Americans. Joe is the only “Christian” among them, and he doesn’t hate Fin or Olivia or Cleo or Emily. We know he’s a Christian because, after he cooks a hot lunch of steak and whatever else for Fin and Olivia, before they can dig in - he puts his arms out at the table and tells the two to “bring them in.” Hands! Let’s give thanks! I can’t help but smile. There’s no offense, and Fin and Olivia, glance at each other, and shrug. A tense moment, but it’s okay. It’s Joe’s thing! And Joe’s okay with that, too. So hands in hands, Joe gives thanks. “Bring them in.” May just as well be referring to their hearts. It’s a form of communion without the fuzziness and insincerity.

Joe’s phone rings, it’s Pop. He has to leave the two before he’s had a bite to eat. Bon apptit! Sincerely! Truly!

The food is good, Olivia says. Fin nods in agree. It is.

We don’t have to talk, she tells him. We can just eat.

In the film’s very last scene, Joe again has made dinner and now the three are sitting side by side on Olivia’s porch. There’s plenty of food left, says Joe, and not looking at the two of them, he adds, we can have leftovers for lunch tomorrow. Olivia looks at him for a good few seconds. Joe isn’t facing her, however. Finally, she turns to face forward and, yes, there’s a smile. There’s a-yeah-that’s-Joe-look again.

Joe has an extended family now. More responsibilities. He doesn’t mind. It’s all good.

So much happens in between the minutes.

On his cell phone, Joe converses with his father in Spanish, apologetically. Olivia, in contrast, has two phones, a landline and a cell phone, and, on the landline, we hear the voice of her ex-husband, David, leaving yet another message. He has something important to tell her. Hope you’re well! No one in The Station Agent is held captive to the technology of their day. It’s useful. Nothing more. Joe wants Fin to be a neighbor and a “bro,” as in, a fellow human.

Fin doesn’t have a phone and, content not to be an owner of one, he manages, preferring to walk. Comfortable in solitude, he thinks about trains and their movement through space and time.

Well, can I walk with you?

No, Fin answers.

When you want company, let me know.

If the film were a train, it would be as slow and quiet as the movement of Fin and Olivia toward the gregariousness of Joe and the openest of Cleo, who is perceptive enough to recognize these particular outsiders don’t threaten her safety. She’s safe, ironically, in this dismal and barren location near the Newfoundland depot. A community is under development here. No stock market investors needed!

Emily is drawn toward this budding community of heterogeneous and diverse through Fin.

At the local tavern, Fin waits for Joe and his father (no shows) when Emily arrives. We’ve seen a more charming Emily. But not now. She asks Fin if she could sit next to him. He’s waiting for someone, he says. Me, too, she says. And her phone rings. It’s Chris. He can’t make it. Disappointed, Emily confides to Fin: I’m pregnant. He listens.

Moments later, as Fin and Emily are leaving the tavern, a truck pulls up. It’s Chris. He takes a look at Fin and he’s toxic! Ah, you’re little friend! Chris’s is all “shock and awe,” a grand spectacle. Doing what’s expected of a man like himself, he thinks, he shoves Emily to the ground. When Fin tries to intervene, he’s shoved into the side of Emily’s car. Emily asks Fin to leave because Chris is Chris: an enemy and an audience is, for him, life.

Maybe I won’t move in with Chris, she tells Fin, at Fin’s house, later that night. He’s not a bad guy. Fin is silent. We know enough about him to know he’s not declaring Chris evil. Neither is Emily. But Chris’s ideas about being human would have Emily remaining as stagnant and incomplete as Olivia’s painted women. Emily needs to move on. She reaches out to kiss Fin.

But the next morning, Joe stops by Fin’s to apologize for the no show at the tavern. His father didn’t feel well… Fin’s not listening. He asks Joe to leave him alone: “I just want to be alone, Joe.” The way it was before—only it never was there in Newfoundland or in Jersey City either. Joe leaves. We see the hurt on his face. The hot dog stand isn’t in its place the next morning.

And finally, the turning point.

There’s a scene where Fin is drinking glass after glass of whiskey at the tavern. He can feel the jeers, the staring eyes. There’s no Joe or Olivia or Emily among this crowd. We see the faces staring at Fin. Other laughing. Finally, he stands up on his bar stool, and it’s as if time stops. The clocks stop. Everyone stands in place as if frozen. All eyes on Fin, who turns around with arms out, shouting: Take a look! Take a good look!

When we next see Fin, he’s caved in on the train tracks, steps from his home. In the dark, we hear and then see from Fin’s prone position on the track, an approaching train. A drunk Fin can barely raise his head as he looks on at the approaching train. We are looking at his face, and behind us, the viewers, we hear the train coming closer and closer. And then a white screen!

Nothing ever happens…

The next morning, Fin awakes in the same place on the train tracks. The Fin who’s been conscious about his attire: white, buttoned-up shirt and black pants is now disheveled but alive. His watch chain (the only thing he believed he had of value) has been smashed to pieces. Our first image of Fin is a man pulling out his watch chain. In a moment, he remembers the immediate past, the night before, lying on the tracks, the train approaching. He smiles, and picks up the pieces, literally. Time to move on again.

A rut is falling between one minute and the next.

The two, Fin and Olivia have been circling around loss: for Fin, the lose of a friend, and for Olivia, the loss of her young son, Sam. I bet each thinks they have traveled a straight path to Newfoundland!

The day before, Fin had gone to Olivia’s house. She had been missing in action. Joe noticed. Cleo noticed, too. When Fin arrives at Olivia’s house, he overhears a phone call between her and David. How could you do this, David? You’ve known me for 17 years. How could you?

She hangs up, and Fin approaches the porch where a slumped Olivia looks emotionally drained. Hurting.


Go away, Fin! You are not a child!

Go away!

Fin leaves, hurt, too. In anger, he arrives at the tavern. And then his stands on the bar stool. No fantasy could be so raw. And his stumbling onto the train tracks, and a white screen…

In the morning, Fin heads out to Olivia’s house again. In order for him to move forward, he sees how its necessary to help Olivia, too, move beyond the stagnant half-painted faces of herself.

In the meantime, Olivia has been wrestling with David’s voice in her ears. Fin finds her on the kitchen floor near an empty pill bottle. He’s having a baby, she tells Fin, who picks up the bottle of pills. She’s taken all of them, she answers Fin. As Fin knees on the floor to lifts her toward him, the two hold each other in an embrace. I want Sam back!

Fin can’t bring Sam back to Olivia, but he can offer her his friendship. And more, there’s a developing community of human beings—who, by being human, can’t be outsiders. It’s no accident that The Station Agent has one of Olivia’s former colleague and friend from Princeton suddenly appear at Olivia’s. Olivia is painting when the doorbell rings. She looks through the curtain. Shit!

Olivia steps out onto the porch, swiftly passing the intruder, who happened to “be in the neighborhood.”

Are you okay?

She’s a gatherer of information.

Fine. Fine. On my way out! Thank you!

For Olivia, it’s been trying, these last two years. Her new friends in Newfoundland got that! In Newfoundland, nothing will be perfect or certain as it was for those she knew in Princeton.

Yes, but are the these characters blind to difference?

Of course not! They live in America!

When Joe first sees Fin he says, Holy shit under his breath. Aloud, however, he asks the man before him, How are you today? in contrast to Chris and his friend (the first time we see these clowns) who, in turn, watch as Fin exits the depot and start shouting: the plane! The plane!

Joe steps up. Stop!

What’s the matter with you, man?

Joe just doesn’t see the need to respond.

Cleo, the child among them, asks Fin if what grade he’s in. Fin, not insulted, tells her he’s finished school. Then are you a midget? Fin says no, he isn’t. No insult. Just education here. A teacher and a pupil. And adult and someone who’s asking as a way, even if unknowingly, to move forward in the world.

Cleo, too, recognizes that Fin isn’t what others see in him. On another day, she hands Fin’s a piece of paper. Here, Fin. You have to speak at my school! He informs her, without explanation, that it’s not possible for him to speak at her school. I can’t speak. Yes, you can, she snaps back. I can’t. You can too! I wish! If you do, you’d speak! And Cleo runs off, leaving the paper in Fin’s hands.

In contrast to the child, Cleo, there’s an older woman, owner of the local grocery store. Fin is some abnormality for her, and she hesitant to express herself in all her glorious ignorance: Hey, ya-hoo. Fin, standing with his back to her at the freezer, turns, and, immediately, the child-like adult snaps a picture of him!

When Fin first comes to the library, he doesn’t see the librarian—and the librarian doesn’t see him—until she does. Emily drops the books she’s carrying in her hands, only because Fin wasn’t visible from where she stood. But when he is visible to her, and the two people face one another, she is sincerely apologetic. I’m so sorry. So Sorry. She’s embarrassed for appearing ignorant. Two seconds later, we see she really looks at Fin and finds him attractive.

Early on, both Fin and Olivia, note Joe’s difference. Watching Joe play soccer with a couple of children, Olivia says of Joe: he surely “loves life.” Fin nods, in agreement.

The Station Agent shows us individuals who are not lonely people but rather individuals mature enough to be comfortable in the silence - how else to engage in contemplation? Self-reflection? The appreciation of silence is what each respects in the other, it’s what makes being in the company of each other special.

Out of silence, our universe exploded into existence.

Fin listens well, as well as Joe talks. When Fin tells Joe he just wants to be alone, he’s being truthful. He does want to be alone, temporarily. Long enough to think about what happened when he reached out to protect Emily from Chris. Fin needs time to think. Talking isn’t necessary now. No emailing, texting, as so many do today. No Instagram. Facebook reporting of all the details, blow by blow. No exchange of insulting, racist, misogynist, xenophobic comments. Basic instinct appealing to basic instinct. Just quiet contemplation. Self-reflection. Fin’s not going low!

Fin’s never been a recluse. Few are.

We’ve seen Fin, at night, quiet. Thinking. We’ve seen Olivia sitting on the edge of her bed in her underwear, staring into a full-length mirror. The camera stays on her for a few moments as it returns to Fin lying on his sofa in the dark, eyes wide open. To some Americans today, these images of contemplating human beings, and not those engaged in yoga meditation, would seem strange. Odd. Even abnormal. So it appears as if nothing ever happens in Newfoundland, except when Chris shouts insults and when David appears at Olivia’s asking what’s with her silence?

Cleo has no problems using her imagination (imagine that!) to play alone in the train car near the depot. When Olivia stops by the depot and leaves a video camera for Fin on his door steps, Cleo invites her to join in the play: Do you want to see my spike collection? Olivia decides it would be fun to learn about this “spike collection,” and there’s Cleo, open to expanding her horizon.

Books live in the lives of these so-called “loners.” Fin reads. One of the first things he does when he arrives in Newfoundland is to walk to the library. Olivia, the artists, understanding the importance of reading, picks up and delivers the book on railroads that Fin tried to borrow from the library. Emily, the librarian, is reading when Fin returns with his first piece of mail, proof of address! Cleo is a pupil. To read is to still oneself long enough to listen and, ultimately connect beyond oneself, often, too, beyond the parochial and narrow minded.

While Olivia is at the hospital recovering from her attempted suicide, Fin takes on the responsibility to come to Olivia’s house not to “organize” in “Fin’s way or to impose a “right” way of living with things, according the latest home fashion magazine but, instead, to make Olivia’s home suitable for the occupant to live with loss. From the old Fin is a new Fin, adjusting, too, to his loss.

The “great” past bubble, dragged away that night he ends up on the train track, is a distant memory.

Fin’s quiet as he moves about the room where Olivia paints. He sees Joe’s phone number. A few days before, he and Joe came to Olivia’s to watch the training chasing video we watched both Fin and Joe shoot earlier in the film. Joe had written his cell phone number on a pad near Olivia’s phone.

Fin sees it.

We see Joe arriving at Fin’s in a regular car. Still not talking. There’s no talking as Joe drives and Fin, too, looks forward. At the hospital, there is Fin and Joe, each with a book in front of them as they sit in the waiting room. We see Olivia coming down the hall toward them. She’s smiling. She’s smiling! Olivia is Olivia, anew. The three hug and kiss. Still quiet.

The disparate coming together in struggle.

Cleo has been coming around to the depot, becoming more and more acquainted with Fin. Even as she awaits a better answer from Fin regarding that upcoming date for him to speak in her classroom, she, the ever present student of life, has more questions: Is Emily his girl friend? What about Olivia? To both questions, Fin smiles and answers, no. Cleo, observant, and aware that she, too, hasn’t seen Olivia lately, tells Fin she likes Olivia. He agrees.

After Olivia has re-inhabited her home, Fin is seen arriving at Cleo’s school. One move initiates another. Touches another. Cleo, open to the give and take of life, finally gets her wish: Fin comes to her school to speak. There’s Fin coming in the door of the classroom. Some children snicker, but there’s another adult in front of the classroom. Fin looks toward the children in their seats and sees Cleo. She she gives him the “thumbs up.” Fin smiles. We smile. What a priceless bit of education - from Cleo to the viewers!

Fin begins. He’s reading from the index cards. Two sentences in about the history of trains, he’s interrupted by a questioner: How tall are you? The child, Jacob, has observed how hierarchical difference is established. He’s as snarky as they come, twisting his noses as he looks at Fin with disdain. We’ve seen the snarky, entitled, frat boy, who never grows up, and for his pedigree, he’s awarded a seat on the US Supreme Court.

In this classroom of children, toxic masculinity is still given oxygen. The children are uneasy. The teacher warns; yet, the warning isn’t a deterrent.

Fin answers, without flinching: four feet five inches.

Jacob interrupts with forceful: I’m taller than you?

It’s our culture these days, folks find it necessary to test the boundaries. Violating maliciously, today. Bullies spilling out, tripping over the willfully ignorant, today. Fifteen years later.

The teacher takes control of the situation, and, apologizing to Fin, she takes the offender in tow and the two leave the classroom. “Jerk,” says Cleo, as Jacob passes her seat. Civility matters.

Fin continues. A student asks about blimbs. What about blimbs? The child wants to know. She’s curious. Fin doesn’t know much about blimbs, he says. They are good. So are trains, Cleo says to another student. Here, in the classroom, is the initiation of a debate, the likes of which it would be hard pressed to experience in programming labeled “debate.” It’s not about producing sameness or the “right” thinking.

The last scene of the film, my favorite, is the quietest of all scenes, and, yet, Fin, Olivia, and Joe are enjoying a joint and drinks on Olivia’s porch. It’s night when most of us engage in contemplation. Fin asks if Olivia and Joe know about blimbs. No one does. It’s doesn’t really matter, except Fin is still thinking about the question from the child, the pupil who asked it.

In between the moments of stillness, Joe teases Fin about that “hot” librarian, Emily. In the era of #MeToo, I hear only Joe being Joe and encouraging Finn to continue is progress. Emily likes Finn. Who hasn’t seen evidence of this? So Joe describes a scene in which Fin watches Emily remove her glasses and shake her hair loose. She doesn’t wear glasses, Fin says. Olivia reaches over to him and taps his arm, Buy her some. It’s worth it!

And we all laugh, and then the screen is black.

Note: Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) and The Visitor (2007), both films I’ve seen, has been recognized by the Academy Awards and Independent Spirit Awards for these films, including The Station Agent. Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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