You try walking across Seattle alone. At night. Barefoot.
My college roommate did all the time. I didn't understand it, just as I didn’t understand his quiet demeanor, his watchfulness from the edges, or his aversion to typical college-life distractions. His after-dark disappearances intrigued me. So I took to walking with him. I wore hiking boots, and still I struggled to match his incredible stride. As I did, my own pace—in walking and in living—permanently changed. I came to value the rewards of adventures off the beaten path, of being quiet in good company. And I found a compassionate friend.
I think of Michael when I watch Tom McCarthy’s large-hearted 2003 comedy The Station Agent.
And I watch it frequently. I see myself in Joe: the talkative food-truck barista (Bobby Cannavale) who sets up shop next to an obsolete train depot in Middle-of-Nowhere, New Jersey. I think of Michael when I watch Fin (Peter Dinklage): a soft-spoken loner who moves into that depot for the solitude, and who eventually surrenders, accepting Joe’s gregarious, uninvited companionship.
It’s remarkable: Watch how Joe and Fin, like an oversized puppy playing with Grumpy Cat, become complementary. Watch how they transform one other through the simple, shared experience of long walks and short silences.
How might the world be changed if we went strolling, in quiet attentiveness, with those we would rather avoid?
My comparison of my roommate and Fin only goes so far. I don’t know where Michael’s quiet nature came from, but it’s obvious what made Fin so disinclined to talk with anybody: He’s been mocked, abused, and avoided for his dwarfism. He has every reason to withdraw from society, to forget himself in a solitary pursuit—namely, train watching. (Does he love trains because they spend so much time in unpopulated regions of the map?) I cringe, seeing myself in the way some people avoid Fin, someone they don’t understand. I hope I’m not so insensitive as those who stare, who mock, who take snapshots as if he’s a rare animal who escaped the circus.
But I also cringe at Joe’s irrepressible flamboyance, the way he imposes himself on Fin’s silent retreat; the way his vocabulary knows no filter (he’s the movie’s R-rated element); the way he insists on saying grace over a meal in company that would rather not. And yet, as I observe Joe’s pain over his own personal affliction—a family crisis—I find his weaknesses endearing.
These two eccentrics aren’t alone: There’s also Olivia (Patricia Clarkson, at her best) an artist who drives the way she behaves, careening all over the place, and who walks like she’s wearing high heels through an earthquake. Olivia relies on prescription medication to cope with a harrowing loss. Olivia needs Joe and Fin. The local librarian, Emily (Michelle Williams), needs friends too, if she’s going to escape her boyfriend’s cruelty. And Cleo (Raven Goodwin)—it’s not hard to guess why this little girl plays all by herself down beside the railroad.