Peter Dinklage, who’s probably best known for playing Tyrion Lannister from the HBO miniseries Game of Thrones, first came to wide attention in 2003 for a brief, 3-minute scene in Will Ferrell’s Christmas movie Elf. It is a hilarious meeting of opposites. The 6’3″ Ferrell is a childlike innocent who grew up in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The 4’5″ Dinklage is an aggressive, Type-A frat boy who brags about his material possessions and sexual conquests as if he were just another follower of Andrew Tate. After Ferrell speaks to Dinklage as if he sincerely believes he’s an elf who had escaped from the North Pole, and Dinklage violent assaults him, as guilty as we may feel about our ingrained bias against people with dwarfism, it’s difficult to keep a straight face.
That same year, Dinklage played the lead in a small, low-budget movie called The Station Agent. Set in sparsely populated West Milford, New Jersey and starring Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams, and Bobby Cannavale, the critically acclaimed film further explores the dilemma of being a 5’10” man in a 4’5″ body. Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, an employee at a small hobby shop in Hoboken New Jersey specializing in model trains. When Henry Styles, his long-time friend and employer played by Paul Benjamin, one of the street corner Greek chorus from Do the Right Thing, dies of a heart attack, Finbar, or “Fin” as he refers to himself, suddenly finds himself without a job. For reasons unmentioned, Styles does not leave Fin the hobby store, but he does leave him a small piece of property, including an old train depot, and an old passenger car, 44 miles away in the unincorporated Newfoundland area of West Milford in Northern Passaic County.
To call West Milford, New Jersey “rural” would be a bit of a stretch. It’s an affluent suburban area just south of the New York State border, and about 20 minutes north of Morristown and the cluttered retail strip in East Hanover on Route 10. Nevertheless, it’s about as different from Hoboken and Hudson County as you can possibly get. Tall trees, quiet roads, lonely mountain lakes, the whole area has an idyllic feel, the kind of place where, in the Spring, you just want to go outside and ride a bike or walk. That’s precisely what Fin does. When we see him talking towards the Hoboken rail terminal, we assume he’s just going to get on the PATH and take a NJ Transit Bus from the Port Authority. Instead he drops down onto the tracks and walks, all 44 miles to West Milford. That Fin would have certainly run into murderous traffic along the way and surely would have been shooed off of NJ Transit property by the police is besides the point. The world of The Station Agent is a quiet little cul-de-sac off the main road of early 21st Century America.
While the tracks in front of the old railway depot in Newfoundland are still active, it’s a low volume freight line, and no longer carries passengers from New York City to the (still extant) Idylease Inn, a luxurious resort yet still open to the middle-class of the metropolitan area. Moving into the depot, for Fin, is to commune with ghosts, the ghosts of vacationers from the early 20th Century, but most of all with the ghost of the station agent, who in 1900 would have been a combination ticket seller, general store manager, and even barber. Above all the station agent would have been an outsider and an observer, a man looking at the world passing by and wondering when if ever he would become a part of it.
Idylease around 1910
Idylease (A frequent stop on my cycling route) today.
Once ensconced in the depot, Fin almost immediately makes a friend. At first it seems an “unlikely” friendship. Joe, played by Bobby Cannavale of Boardwalk Empire, is a tall handsome Cuban American who surely has no trouble meeting women or making friends. Indeed, it seems a little strange, almost creepy. Why exactly does this strapping young Latin hunk want to be friends so badly with a dwarf? Does he have some kind of fetish? But then we realize that Joe, who runs a hotdog stand out in the middle of nowhere and can’t possibly be turning a profit, has also communed with the ghost of the station master at the old depot. He’s a customer service agent without any customers.
People can make connections, the movie seems to argue, without speaking. They feel one another’s souls. There’s a reason Joe’s spirit reaches out to Fin’s. His father is dying. If Fin has recently lost his spiritual father, then Joe is constantly worried about losing his real father. He suddenly realizes why he has driven his father’s hotdog truck out to the middle of nowhere and set up shop. Fin is wary and mistrustful. But Joe breaks down his defenses. “Be friends with me bro,” he seems to say. “I may be a foot and a half taller than you but inside we’re just two lonely guys who have lost our dads.”
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear why Fin rarely talks about his old boss Henry Styles, even though Henry protected him from customers who would mock him for being a dwarf. The entire plot revolves, not only around the station agent’s ghost, but around Harry’s ghost. People are drawn to Fin, not because they’re curious about his being a dwarf, but because they sense his loss and want to share their own. Olivia Harris, played by Patricia Clarkson, who has recently been separated from her husband over their shared grief at a lost child, almost runs into Fin, not once but twice when she spills coffee into her lap in her SUV. Eventually, Joe, Olivia and Fin are drawn together almost by the force of gravity.
Olivia also offers Fin and unexpected opportunity for redemption. Early in the movie, she is the pursuer. She barges into Fin’s life whether he likes it or not. But as the film progresses, she becomes more and more consumed with anguish over the loss of her child and the separation from her husband, and withdraws into a suicidal depression, trying to push both Fin and Joe out of her life. Suddenly, Fin is no longer trapped in the shell, which is not only an accident of a physical handicap but which is partly of his own making. He finds he cares about a person who is pushing him away. He has to find a way to break through her defenses so they can once again be friends. A subplot with Michelle Williams, always an appealing actress, feels a bit forced but further hammers in the point that Fin is a 5’10” man living in a dwarf’s body. After her abusive boyfriend shoves Fin to the ground after Fin tries to protect her, and he’s angry that he doesn’t have the size or strength to win the fight, she tries to seduce him. But it’s not what he wants. “People don’t understand,” he says. “I’m just a boring, ordinary person.” Fin doesn’t want sexual conquest. He pursues Olivia because he cares about her, not because he wants her as a lover. He and Joe end up almost like brothers. But he doesn’t want to get even with an abusive asshole by fucking his girlfriend. He’s not that kind of person.
We don’t learn anything about Fin’s past, other than that he’s a man in his 30s who loves trains and recently worked in a hobby store. But he appears to be an educated man from middle-class family, a socially isolated underachiever not because of poverty but because of dwarfism. Throughout the movie, Fin has been pursued by another Joe, Cleo, a young black girl still in junior high school, who barges into his life out of pure innocent curiosity. This is where we realizes how different Peter Dinklage’s character is from the arrogant jerk he played in Elf. He’s not offended by Cleo’s innocence. He’s redeemed by it. Finally agreeing to be a guest lecturer in front of her class and give a talk about trains, he seems to get over his anxiety over speaking in front of crowds. A boy makes a cheap crack about his height, but it’s no big deal. The other kids are so fascinated by his knowledge of trains they want him to come back and give a talk about blimps. Fin knows nothing about blimps, but upon meeting with Olivia and Joe the next day he starts peppering them with questions. Perhaps Fin is a grade school teacher waiting to come out of his shell, a popular little man who can speak to kids on their own level without condescending to them, the station agent finally come home from the past to find that maybe he has a future after all.