OFF THE RAILS (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Adam Irving
Starring: Charles Bilal, Courtney Brown, Sally Butler
Review by Gilbert Seah
OFF THE RAILS is the story of a black man who has spent a majority of his life on the NYC subway and buses. But he is not an employee but a transit worker impersonator who has landed himself in jail 32 for criminal impersonation of NYC Subway workers, hijacking trains and buses, endangering the lives of the public and a whole lot of assorted charges.
Why make a documentary of such an unimportant person and who would want to watch a documentary on such a person? Co-writer and director Irving makes it a point to make his documentary on Darius McCollum one of the most intriguing and entertaining documentaries that it won the prize of the top 20 Audience Popular docs at Canada’s Hot Docs Festival.
Irving has clearly done his homework. He has assembled everything about Darius and has shown him to be a most unfortunate victim of the U.S. system. One cannot help but feel both pity for the man yet wanting to punish him for his deed. But there is more……. Darius McCollum is revealed as a man with Asperger’s syndrome who cannot help himself.
A patient with Asperger’s is one who can deal with objects better than human beings. But Irving includes two human beings that affect Darius the most. One is his mother who is interviewed on film. Their letters of correspondence while Darius is serving sentence are read aloud. The other woman in his life, an immigrant from Ecuador who can hardly speak a word of English is also interviewed. Here, the audience sees that even true love cannot alter Darius’s obsession with the NYC Transit System.
Like many a successful documentarist, Director Irvin know how to rally his audience’s emotions. Irving has as his target the U.S. judicial system. Darius is an unfortunate sick man who has not done anyone any harm, though it is made clear that he could have, given the opportunity. Darius offers the police information on the weaknesses of the transit in order to better protect citizens from possible terrorist attacks on the subway. Yet because of fear of being contacted by terrorist while incarcerated, Darius is put into solitary confinement. His lawyer clearly states that no system would punish a man who has helped them in this way.
OFF THE RAILS is not without humour. Irving parodies jail with the transit system. “The doors are closing,” is heard in voiceover as the jail doors automatically close shut. The way in which Darius manoeuvres his way around the system is quite hilarious.
OFF THE RAILS is a very thorough examination of Darius McCollum. The origin of his sickness is shown to be catalyzed from a stabbing by a pair of scissors in school when he was a kid during a snow day. Asperger’s experts also explain Darius’s behaviour in impersonating transit personnel and his comfort within the transit system.
An obvious solution is to have Darius hired by NYC Transit. But Transit has replied that Darius is a risk and Transit cannot have the safety of the many millions of riders lie in the hands of someone who never obeys the rule book.
OFF THE RAILS finally emerges as both an entertaining and absorbing documentary about an ordinary person with a problem. The doc is tremendously effective because that ordinary person that is the subject in OFF THE RAILS could be any one of us.