Writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent checks off a lot of the boxes that can make indie films appealingsuch as “low-key,” “character-driven,” and “comedy-drama.” Sensitively acted and deliberately paced, this artful feel-good movie overflows with compassion for its alienated, withdrawn characters. But like the awful inspirational fiction that high-minded middle-school English teachers sometimes impose on their students, The Station Agent seems so earnestly determined to uplift that it ultimately cloys.
Peter Dinklage stars as Fin McBride, a dwarf employed at a model-train shop. When his boss dies unexpectedly, Fin inherits and moves into a decrepit abandoned railroad depot on the outskirts of Newfoundland, N.J. His new home offers him the isolation he has long sought as protection from the taunts (“Where’s Snow White?”) elicited by his tiny stature. But hard as he tries to withdraw from the human race, life peskily invades his solitude. Much against his will, he’s befriended by a series of loners: Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), a Cuban snack vendor who parks his wagon across from the titular station house; Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), a bitter, depressed painter whose marriage has been shattered by tragedy; Emily (Michelle Williams), an unwed and pregnant young librarian; and Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a plump, shy schoolgirl who shares Fin’s obsession with all things railroad.
McCarthy risks charges of gimmickry by making a dwarf his protagonist, but he defuses criticism by casting Dinklage, a conventionally handsome actor who invests his role with stoic dignity. The rest of the ensemble is similarly impressive. Independent film icon Clarkson shrewdly encases Olivia’s vulnerability behind a façade of profane, drunken resignation. Cannavale’s gabby, softhearted Joe uses language as a benevolent weapon to crack the protective shells the other characters have erected. Fresh-faced Williams is appealing as an open-minded young woman whose own predicament engages Fin’s sympathy, and Goodwin once again projects the mute tenderness that informed her memorable debut role in Lovely and Amazing.
But several details of McCarthy’s screenplay are hard to swallow. Why, for example, does Joe choose to park his lunch wagon near Fin’s remote station house, a location only slightly more accessible than a primeval forest? And why are Fin and Olivia’s first two encounters repetitions of the same mirthless gambit, a conflation of meeting cute and dwarf tossing? (Inattentively piloting her SUV, the accident-prone painter nearly runs Fin overnot once, but twiceas he toddles down a country road.)
The Station Agent’s largest misstep, though, is its relentless strumming of the viewer’s heartstrings, resulting in an ode to victimization. Olivia’s mean-spirited ex-husband unexpectedly turns up at her home while Fin is visiting and gratuitously mocks the diminutive man. And like a pound puppy angling for adoption, the movie is so calculatingly lovable in its depiction of a surrogate family of outcasts that one longs for a few moments of unredeemed anguish. Although subtler and less egregious, The Station Agent employs many of the same mawkish strategies as mainstream heartwarmers. Consumed in such Big Gulp drafts, the milk of human kindness curdles.
Nobody’s going to accuse Wonderland of mawkishness. Director James Cox’s Rashomon-like account of a still-unsolved real-life 1981 Hollywood multiple-murder case, which he co-scripted with three collaborators, aims at nothing more than a tabloid-flavored exposition of depravity. Screen dramatizations of similarly notorious slaughterssuch as In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, and Auto Focussifted through their carnage in order to glean some insights into the psyches of the killers and the society that engendered them. But Cox’s sole aim seems to be chronicling the sleazy miasma of drugs, sex, and racketeering that resulted in the gruesome slaughter of four people and the savaging of a sole survivor, so badly beaten that she was unable to identify her attackers.
What distinguished the so-called Wonderland murders, named for the Laurel Canyon avenue on which they occurred, was the alleged involvement of John C. Holmes, the scrawny, superendowed porno star who appeared in more than 2,000 hard-core movies (most under the nom de phallus Johnny Wadd). Arrested in Florida six months later as a suspect in the killings, he was acquitted the following year and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. The only individual to serve time for the massacre was drug dealer Adel Nasrallah, aka Eddie Nash, who, after a 1990 hung-jury trial and a 1991 acquittal, was convicted of federal racketeering chargesincluding conspiracy to commit the Wonderland murdersand spent 37 months in federal prison before his release on supervised probation last March. Wonderland begins after Holmes’ porn career is over. (As Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, Mark Wahlberg, outfitted with a prosthetic penis, portrayed a thinly disguised, sanitized Holmes during his ascent to adult-movie stardom.) Now an insolvent, strung-out hophead, he and some dealer friends pull off a quarter-million-dollar drug, cash, and jewelry heist of Nash’s house. Subsequently, Nash strong-arms Holmes into betraying his pals and then brutally executes them.
Because the facts of the Wonderland case, including the extent of Holmes’ involvement, have never been verified, Cox presents multiple versions of the massacre as viewed by several narratorsincluding junkie David Lind, Holmes’ estranged but supportive wife, Sharon, and the ex-porn star himself (played by Val Kilmer). Unwilling or unable (because Holmes’ widow and his younger lover, Dawn Schiller, were part of Wonderland’s production team) to present a definitive account of the murders, Cox is stuck with a narrative that lacks a resolution, and he resorts to fabricating a makeshift ending by presenting a series of postscript titles detailing what’s become of the participants since the bloodbath.
Perhaps to distract from the poverty of his story, Cox deploys a dizzying command of film technique. His hyperkinetic visual style combines handheld camera, split-screen, gliding aerial shots, the juxtaposition of tinted and full-color footage, and freewheeling editing that plays havoc with chronology. And he exhibits a gift for handling actors. As Holmes, Kilmer undergoes a startling transformation from matinee idol to desperate, strung-out street sleaze, though his one-dimensional role doesn’t allow him much leeway to demonstrate expressive range. Kate Bosworth, as Holmes’ teenage girlfriend, is a sweet-faced gutter angel, driven by love through events that she can’t control or even fully comprehend. Mustachioed Dylan McDermott is almost unrecognizable as Lind, whose contempt for Holmes permeates his police interrogation. Eric Bogosian slimes the screen as Nash, the embodiment of malevolent decadence. But, as in The Opposite of Sex, Lisa Kudrow turns in the movie’s most compelling performance. Although her Sharon doesn’t appear until the final half-hour, Kudrow again displays a unique gift for portraying complex women whose seemingly composed, almost schoolmarmish exteriors mask passionate reserves of sympathy and resentment.
For all of the considerable talent involved in its creation, though, Wonderland is a curiously empty experience. In Rashomon, Kurosawa used a violent rape-murder as the framework for a serious investigation of the contradictory perceptions of truth. But coming more than two decades after the fact, and presented without context or interpretation, Cox’s replication of the drugland slayings amounts to little more than an excuse to roll in the gutter, a downer from which one emerges neither entertained nor enlightened. CP