Mark Kermode - Love, death and train-spotting

Film - A satisfying oddball fable and a deliciously eerie thriller, writes Mark Kermode

The Statio

A few months ago, I asked the writer/director Tom McCarthy how best to describe the leading man from his haunting film The Station Agent, a tale of love, death and train- spotting that was then well on its way to winning a Bafta for best original screenplay. Having been startled by the term "dwarf love story", with which the director Matthew Bright proudly described Peter Dinklage's previous film, Tiptoes, and still uncomfortable with the twee, PC phrase "little people", I wanted to know what the 4ft 6ins actor himself preferred to be called. "Well, ideally," replied McCarthy blankly, "he likes to be called Peter."

That press coverage of The Station Agent should have concentrated so squarely on its admirably even-handed portrayal of an unusually short hero is perhaps unsurprising, considering how limited the roles for such actors have been - usually breaking down into elves, munchkins and dream demons. "Have you ever actually had a dream with a dwarf in it?" demands Dinklage in Tom DiCillo's sadly little-seen Living In Oblivion, railing against the obsessions of directors who seem to believe that midgetry automatically implies magic. "The only place I've ever seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! Even I don't have dreams with dwarves in them!" More recently, in the otherwise wretched Christmas comedy Elf, Dinklage is seen physically attacking the lanky Will Ferrell for daring to invoke the "E" word, unaware that his victim is actually one of Santa's larger helpers.

Crucially, McCarthy's oddball fable about a model railway enthusiast who inherits an abandoned train station in New Jersey was not conceived with any specific height requirement in mind. On the contrary, McCarthy's decision to cast Dinklage in the lead role came as a surprise both to himself and the actor, provoking only minor modifications to this tale of awkward outsiders united by a strangely bonding loneliness. The result is a splendidly unexpected treat; a film that recalls the bleak charms of Jim Jarmusch's cult hit Stranger Than Paradise, and which reminds us just how satisfying quirky American indie film-making can still be. The sombre-faced Dinklage gives a terrifically brooding, physical performance as the man of few words who stoically walks the lines of disused railway, followed by the ragamuffin band of misfits who answer his silent call. Among them is the magnificent Patricia Clarkson (worth the price of admission in any movie she graces with her edgy presence), on top form as the scatty local artist nursing a stifling bereavement; and Bobby Cannavale in a winning turn as a brash coffee-and-hotdog vendor wracked with anxiety about his ailing father.

For all its low-key charm, there's a grand visual poetry at work in Oliver Bokelberg's cinematography, which captures the players at large in an oddly alien landscape - whether sitting silently on a bench as freight trains shamble past, or plodding methodically through the overgrown sleepers that litter the ironically named "Newfoundland, New Jersey". Meanwhile, Stephen Trask's noodly folk-blues score hits just the right note of melancholic nostalgia, evoking both isolation and community with its lazy slide guitar drawls and plaintiff harmonica whistles.

Also impressive, though far more aggressively alienating, is the latest offering from the Danish wunderkind Nicolas Winding Refn. Despite its misleadingly gaudy exploitation-movie title, Fear X remains an insidiously understated affair that crawls quietly under the skin of its audience and proceeds to eat its way into the nervous system. John Turturro is uncharacteristically un-mannered as the widowed shopping mall security guard whose horror at the murder of his wife leads him into a near-pornographic obsession with CCTV footage of the crime scene. Recalling Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup in its brilliantly futile use of voyeuristic tropes, Fear X presents a visual nightmare in which seeing is far from believing. While the hypnotic strains of Brian Eno's ambient score thrum quietly at the edge of our consciousness, Turturro's stupefied performance encapsulates the catatonic tenor of this deliciously eerie thriller. By the time the surreal anticlimax rolls around, we have begun to feel like unreliable witnesses to a crime, unable to distinguish memory from imagination.

Don't be misled by the mild 12A certificate - as with George Sluizer's Spoor- loos (The Vanishing), the chills on offer in Fear X, while hardly explicit, remain unashamedly adult. In a different league from the earlier experiments Bleeder and Pusher, this is the work of a director hitting his stride. On this evidence, Nic Winding Refn (son of the celebrated director and editor Anders Refn) has a very bright future of darkness ahead of him.