Off-track

sarris railsandties1v Off trackRAILS & TIES
Running time 96 minutes
Directed by Alison Eastwood
Written by Micky Levy
Starring Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Miles Heizer

Alison Eastwood’s Rails & Ties, from a screenplay by Micky Levy, marks Ms. Eastwood’s directorial debut after a 23-year, 14-film acting career that began in 1984 opposite her director-father, Clint Eastwood, in Tightrope. The story itself was inspired partly by a train trip taken by Ms. Levy from Las Vegas to Santa Fe. As she recalls: “Spending all of those hours on the train, I had a lot of time to watch the passengers and observe the people who work there. We live in a time when we more often hear about air travel and car trips. The only time you ever really hear about trains is when there is tragedy. That whole world began to intrigue me.”

When Ms. Levy began researching her project, she interviewed an engineer who told her the most frequent problem he encountered was cars on the track. The problem was that it was not advisable to stop a speeding train suddenly because it would endanger the lives of the passengers.

As might be expected, this is precisely the situation in which Tom, the engineer (Kevin Bacon), finds himself when he spots a car parked on the tracks, and refuses to pull the emergency cord despite the pleas of his assistant engineer, for fear of a derailment that would imperil the lives of his passengers.

What Tom had no way of knowing was that a young, very ill and suicidally inclined mother had parked the car on the tracks and promptly fell asleep, and that her 12-year-old son Davey (Miles Heizer) was unable to pull her from the car before the collision, leaving him with the trauma of guilt for not saving her, and rage at the engineer who wouldn’t stop the train.

As if that were not enough grief and guilt for one movie, Tom has already been burdened with the bleak prospects of his wife, Megan (Marcia Gay Harden), who is slowly and painfully dying of cancer. Now Tom faces the possible loss of his job in the course of an official inquiry into the accident. Meanwhile Davey runs away from his foster home; pretending to be Tom’s nephew, he gets his address from a conductor on the train. When Tom answers the door, he is confronted by an enraged little boy tearfully pounding his fists into Tom’s chest.

When Megan rises from her bed to find out what is happening, Davey falls into her welcoming arms. Tom then acquiesces in Megan’s attachment to Davey to the point of hiding him from the authorities, who are searching for Davey as a runaway. But now Davey begins facing the prospect of losing two nurturing mother figures within a short period of time. This narrative seems contrived to heap a pile of grief and guilt on a child, perhaps too much for one movie. Someone in the movie remarks casually that trains are on the way out, and this is especially true in the U.S., which unlike Europe and Japan has failed to modernize train travel so that it can compete with the plane and the automobile.

From The Great Train Robbery in the medium’s beginnings, trains have been stellar performers in the movies. Alfred Hitchcock alone made four train classics, notably The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959). Then there are Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), Walter Forde’s Rome Express (1932) and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

The point is that train travel has lost a lot of its currency and reality, and now seems more forced as a subject. The topicality of movies is what makes them chronicles of each period in which they occur, which, in Bazinian terms, makes them more than a mere art form, but in an indelible sense, an imprint of reality.

Suffice it to say for the matter at hand that Mr. Bacon, Ms. Gay Harden and Mr. Heizer are talented enough almost to bring off this fragile conceit—almost, but not quite.