Kevin Bacon plays Tom Stark, a train conductor trying to deal with the terminal illness of his wife Megan (Marcia Gay Harden). He attempts to delve into his work to avoid thinking about the inevitable, but this only seems to create tension in their relationship. Things get worse when a suicidal mother stops her car on the train tracks. Forced with a judgment call - slam on the brakes and risk derailing, or hit the car and risk killing the woman - Tom chooses the latter. He's temporarily suspended from his job while an investigation is carried out.
Then a young boy shows up on the Stark doorstep. He is Davey Danner (newcomer Miles Heizer), the son of the woman killed. At first, he blames Tom for his mother's death, but then Tom is able to explain that stopping the train was not necessarily an option. Davey is a train fanatic, and Megan in particular takes to him. Lamenting the children they never had - and seeing the chance for healing on all sides - she convinces her husband to harbor the boy. Tom eventually agrees and the three form a strong bond. The problem is that Davey has escaped from a foster home, and a Child Protective Services worker is out looking for him. It would also cost Tom his job should the authorities discover that he's been in contact with the dead woman's family.
Rails & Ties suggests that Alison Eastwood has learned a lot about filmmaking from her father. Like most of Clint's directorial efforts, the movie has effectively little "technique." The younger Eastwood trusts her material and doesn't feel the need to jazz it up with showy camera moves or overly clever editing. She allows long takes and tells the story with a deliberate pace. She also gets first-rate performances from the cast. Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden are two of the most accomplished actors working today, and without a lot of unnecessary intrusion, they are allowed to give deep performances. The same goes for Miles Heizer, who makes an astonishing feature debut and holds his own against his esteemed co-stars.
The movie's weak spot is the screenplay by Micky Levy. Her script is not a bad one. In fact, many of the individual scenes and lines of dialogue are quite effective. It's that Levy isn't always sure how to move the plot to where it needs to be, and so she resorts to coincidences and contrivances so glaring that they often pull you out of the story. For example, the kid whose mother gets hit by a train just happens to be a train fanatic, and he just happens to end up living with the train conductor who just happened to kill his mom. And the train conductor's wife just happens to be dying, just as the kid's mother has died. And the Child Protective Services worker comes to the house to look around but doesn't look around too closely because their secret has to come out another way. You see what I mean?
In this sense, DVD is the perfect place for a movie like Rails & Ties. A film's flaws often have a harder time hiding on the big screen, where high ticket prices (and high expectations) cause us to be less forgiving. DVD, on the other hand, is a different ballgame. Watching a movie at home is a more intimate experience, which befits an intimate story like this one. Somehow it's easier to block out the often forced nature of the plot and just enjoy the rich performances and the humane themes.
That's more or less what I did. This is not a perfect movie, but the three main actors are so convincing that I concentrated on them and essentially ignored the things that didn't work. People occasionally refer to something as being an "actors' picture," and Rails & Ties is a good example of that. Harden and Bacon have the opportunity to lose themselves in their characters, to create fictional beings who somehow seem to live and breathe beyond the confines of the screen on which we are watching them. If you are an admirer of either of actor - and I consider myself a major admirer of both - then this is a movie worth checking out despite its flaws. It's also a strong indication that, with a tighter script, Alison Eastwood has the potential to be an important filmmaker.
( 1/2 out of four)
Rails & Ties arrives on DVD June 17 in a widescreen format that preserves the movie's 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Picture and sound quality on the disc are outstanding. The DVD's bonus features consist solely of three deleted scenes, two of which deal with an excised subplot involving Davey's friendship with a teenage girl he meets in a train station. While minimal, these scenes provide more of the compelling performances that are movie's strong point.
Rails & Ties is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, an accident scene, brief nudity and momentary strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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