When we’re young, we can come to be defined by a single, dominant interest; horses or dinosaurs, for instance. Eventually the youthful joys of saddles and velociraptors subside under the weight of increasing responsibilities and new hobbies. Sometimes we recall such early passions with fondness, other times with embarrassment, but rarely do they continue to define us as a person into our adult years.
Not so for Darius McCollum, who has continued to be entranced by trains and buses, specifically those of the MTA in New York City, from his early days into his current life as a 51 year old man. His fixation is intense, as it’s one brought about as a result of having Aspergers, but it transcends even that level of devotion; Darius isn’t just interested in the facts, operations, and history of the subway, he frequently commandeers trains and buses for joy rides. During operating hours. In full uniform. Making all the stops.
In a notable directorial debut, Adam Irving‘s Off the Rails shakes the salacious overtones that have dominated coverage of McCollum for decades in order to present a nuanced and tragic portrait of the man, his obsession, and the society struggling to deal with him.
Tracks Turn to Bars
You might imagine there may be some repercussions for such behavior, and you’d be right; Darius has spent the majority of his adult life incarcerated. That alone indicates that jail has had no impact on Darius’s hijackings, serving only to separate them by increasingly lengthy periods. Impersonating transit employees is a compulsion against which he has little defense.
His knowledge of the equipment, routes, and schedules is encyclopedic. But, stemming from his first unauthorized conductorship at 15, the MTA has made it their policy to put as much distance between them and Darius as possible, precluding him from ever making his dream of being a train operator a reality.
In a way the film is an attempt to answer the famous line ‘what happens to a dream deferred?” In this instance the answer seems to be firmly in the “fester…then run” column. Darius is repeatedly prohibited from living out his desires, leaving them to build up to such a degree that he’d rather act them out than let the potential consequences cause him to experience a life unlived.
His situation is exacerbated by a DA’s office that is unable to see any other solution than the blunt tool of incarceration, throwing Darius in with some of the city’s worst offenders. Upon his release, now branded a convict on top of autistic, employment becomes absurdly unattainable. Left with no refuge, the trains and buses of New York become his home, office, and church, inevitably starting the whole cycle anew. The life of Darius McCollum reveals itself as something akin to Sisyphus as written by Joseph Heller.
Thus does Off the Rails examine the jarring inadequacy of our criminal justice system through the lens of Darius’ story. With judges that ignore medical experts, prosecutors needing to appear tough on crime, defense attorneys more concerned with publicity than exoneration, and a penal system tasked solely with punishment and containment, the film demonstrates that beyond not being equipped to deal with a compulsive, but mostly benign, recidivist such as Darius, our criminal justice institutions on a larger level are simply unable to take into account the subtleties of individual cases.
Conducting a Full Picture
In order to achieve these ends, Irving utilizes animation and reenactments to support his verité footage and interviews in an effort to present Darius as a fully formed person and move beyond relegating him to his offenses, as the daily press of New York so often have.
We learn about Darius’ childhood and the traumas that lend him to find a sanctuary on the subway. We hear the prison correspondences between him and his mother read by their authors, with Mrs. McCollum’s hope for and patience with her son dwindling as the number and length of his prison stints increase. We see, in one of my favorite shots of the year, Darius beaming as he rides the subway for the first time after removing his probation-mandated ankle bracelet.
Before long a strong empathetic bond is created, to the extent that you can feel some of the excitement Darius must’ve when he took on the role of conductor, as well as the crushing defeats of his repeated jailings. Further aiding in that effect is an at once driving yet soothing score from Sean Sumwalt, recalling Philip Glass or German Motorik bands, reflecting the repetitive pulse of train tracks and complementing the surreal narrative, helping the viewer to experience the motion so central to Darius’ experience while seated in the theater.
It’s important to note that Off the Rails is not merely a “Darius is perfect and institutions are oppressive” film. It takes great strides to present the whole of his personality. His narcissistic tendencies are apparent both in his casual dialogue and how he relishes the attention from the media. He has difficulty putting people above trains. And there’s the whole casual scofflaw thing. But in spite of all that, his humanity and passion shine to the fore.
Throughout the film Darius compares himself to Superman, saying that while the costumed hero’s mission in life is to save the world, his is to “get people from point A to point B”. He says that his kryptonite is the third rail, but I would argue a stronger analogy is that his yellow sun (what gives Superman his powers) is the MTA, and separated from it, he loses the thing that gives his life meaning, crumbling both physically and mentally behind bars.
It’s unlikely that many of us feel for anything as strongly as Darius feels for public transportation. Nevertheless, Off the Rails leaves the viewer wondering “What is my passion? What would happen if it were to be ripped from me? And what would I sacrifice to see it fulfilled?”
Do you view Darius’ antics as harmful or benign?
Off The Rails will have its digital release on Sundance Now on December 8.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.