the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, October 26, 2007

Rails and Ties

Most love stories start at the beginning. Rails and Ties starts at the end.

Tom and Megan Stark (Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden) always thought there would be time to take a trip or have kids or live out a dozen such dreams all couples yearn to fulfill when they first come together. But when Megan discovers she has inoperable cancer, she is forced to acknowledge that all her dreams are forever out of reach. Terrified at the thought of her own death but reconciled to its imminence, Megan yearns for her husband’s love and support now more than ever. But Tom cannot face the thought of losing his wife. While Megan wears her heart on her sleeve, Tom internalizes everything and decides to bury himself in his work as a train engineer where everything runs on ordered, predetermined courses and at least he has control. Or does he?

On a routine run, the unthinkable happens. As Tom’s train rounds a bend, he spies a car parked on the tracks just ahead; a young boy inside struggles to wake his unresponsive mother. Tom makes the only decision he can: he lays on the horn but dares not stop — if he pulls the emergency break, chances are the passenger train will derail and many more than two people will be killed. While the child leaps to safety, the train plunges into the car, killing the mother instantly.

Tom’s career is sidelined while a hearing decides whether or not his actions were according to the book, and he finds himself with nothing but time to spend with his dying wife. As he struggles to salvage their relationship in the midst of its imminent end, fate steps in when Davey (Miles Heizer), the young boy from the accident, appears on their doorstep to confront the man responsible for killing his mother. In a far-fetched turn of events that makes sense only within the context of Megan’s twilight of life, the Starks take in the young orphan, even as the police and child services mount a manhunt to find him. In Davey, Megan must find the fulfillment of her most cherished dream, Tom must find a way to open his heart before it is too late, and a young boy must discover the family he never had.

Alison “Daughter of Clint” Eastwood, has assembled nearly all of her father’s filmmaking team for her directorial debut. She has created a film of quiet delicacy, something fragile yet resolute, and shot through with a life affirming thread that is brave enough to suggest that sometimes life does indeed blossom from tragedy. Her use of trains as an analogy both of a means of freedom and a vehicle hopelessly trapped on an unavoidable trajectory is incisive without being overbearing. While her script has moments of exaggeration and narrative clumsiness, it rarely degrades to the point of unbelievably and never to the point that we divest our emotional fidelity.

Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden, who previously worked together in the dark but delicious Mystic River, here deliver courageous performances as two people desperately trying to find a way to get their lives back on track before it is too late. For Bacon, it is a welcome return to form after his hysterically bad performance is the dreadful Death Sentence. Harden is amazing as a woman determined to ingest every last bit of life before it is taken from her. Perhaps most surprisingly, young Miles Heizer, in his feature film debut, holds his own with some of the best actors we have, portraying a child forced to grow up far beyond his years.

I saw Rails and Ties only hours after a dear friend revealed to me that his wife has been stricken with cancer. Films about death cutting short a romance work because we in the audience cannot help but superimpose ourselves onto the roles. And one cannot watch Rails and Ties without those thoughts roiling inside. Tears brimmed at the surface of my eyes throughout the entire film. And yet, Rails and Ties goes one step further. While many films deal with the emotional agony and recovery of the one left behind, this film focuses every bit as much on the one cursed with the knowledge that no matter her willpower or resolve, death could come at any moment.

There is a scene in the film where Tom, unable to keep his head above the churning emotional waters, flies into a rage and demolishes an elaborate train set he’s been constructing in their garage. He spends the rest of the film rebuilding it and his relationship with his wife — the metaphor for which the train stands. While we rarely see clearly while in the midst of agony, we cannot overlook the fact that sometimes tragedy leads to healing, love, redemption and even hope.

Rails and Ties is a competent, assured film from a first-time director who obviously knows her material well enough to pull on our heartstrings without descending into melodrama or over-sentimentality. Eastwood does an estimable job of taking what is admittedly an implausible premise and making it sing with authenticity.


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