The public rail system rarely seems to get good press, especially if you’re a regular commuter (doubly so if you ride on a line that is seeing industrial action.) However, for Darius McCollum, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, there is a special song hidden within the rhythm of the wheels and the routine of the timetable, which is shown in Adam Irving’s debut feature documentary Off The Rails. This tells the story of McCollum’s life, his love of the New York public transport system and his numerous brushes with the law.
Off The Rails uses a combination of re-enactments, animation, stock footage of trains and buses, archive footage and talking head interviews with people from McCollum’s life, including the man himself. The main hook of this documentary is its almost scathing indictment of the American justice system and its treatment of the mentally handicapped, as McCollum discusses his repeated “joyrides” on trains despite not being part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and the harsher and harsher sentences that he gets handed, in an attempt to dissuade him from transgressing again. In many ways, the whole account can be viewed as a more light-hearted version of Making a Murderer, exploring the various problems that a person with Asperger’s Syndrome experiences within the courts.
Despite the severity of the sentences handed down to him, McCollum is an utter delight to watch as he talks frankly about his experiences and how he first came to start driving trains as a teenager. His enthusiasm and passion for the subway is completely infectious, and you’ll be fascinated by his knowledge and intensity, so much so that you will feel totally justified in proclaiming that McCollum is deserving of a job with the MTA instead of jail time, then feel guilty about the reminders from both prosecutors and McCollum’s defence attorneys alike that what he is doing is illegal, and has the potential for much more severe consequences.
Possibly the most touching aspect of the film are McCollum’s comparisons between himself and Superman. These segments, which are intercut with footage from the old cartoons from the 1960’s and animations of him in a similar costume, really help to endear you to McCollum and his compulsion to drive trains. Another moving segment is are the communications between McCollum and his mother during his regular incarcerations from 1981 to the mid 2000’s.
Irving makes plenty of attempts to portray a balanced view of McCollum throughout the documentary, but it is clear that his beliefs lie on the side of a man who has been wronged by the justice system. It is very hard not to agree with him, when the aggressive tones of many of the newspapers and reporters portray McCollum as a menace, yet his crimes are deemed victimless by many of the transit workers and people associated with McCollum’s care.
Off The Rails is a gripping story of one man stuck in the revolving door of the justice system and being denied the proper help that he needs. The ending almost becomes a contrived mess, only becoming more realistic after a sad turn of events. Regardless, it is a fascinating insight into one man’s life, and very moving.
Off The Rails debuts at the Raindance Film Festival Friday 23rd September.