Review: Off the Rails
By John Corrado
★★★½ (out of 4)
Darius McCollum has spent over thirty years impersonating transit officials and commandeering buses and subway trains for joy rides, and has ended up stuck in the revolving doors of the prison system because of it.
These so called “crimes” have made him a New York legend, and his unique story is recounted in the compelling documentary Off the Rails. You see, Darius has Asperger’s syndrome and is happiest when riding the rails, knowing the entire transit system like the back of his hand, and finding a sense of community amongst the workers and passengers.
Having been severely bullied as a child, his love of trains all started when he was fifteen and the driver let him take over the subway for an hour, flawlessly doing the announcements and making every stop before being caught. This gave way to him coming up with increasingly ingenious ways to get his transit fix, replicating uniforms and getting himself the badges and keys needed to access different areas, so that he could take the trains and buses out for a spin. From picking up passengers to inspecting the tracks at night, he does every single job exceedingly well, with the only problem being that he doesn’t actually have a job.
But the New York Transit Authority has always been apprehensive to actually employ Darius McCollum because they are embarrassed by how he has exposed the flaws in their security, which means that this compulsive pursuit of his special interest at literally all costs has tragically led him to spend many years of his life in prison, not getting the support or therapy he needs. The only thing he loves more than transit is his mother, a resilient older woman who stands by his side, while also resigning herself to the fact that she can’t do much to break her son’s cycle of repeated offences.
With Off the Rails, first time director Adam Irving has crafted an incredibly compelling film that is completely sympathetic towards Darius McCollum, telling his story through interviews and reenacted flashbacks. The film documents the ups and downs of his life, and also explores the much larger issue of how the prison system as a whole often fails to help individuals with disabilities. It’s telling that many of Darius McCollum’s sentences have been handed down by judges who lack basic understanding of Asperger’s syndrome, including one who refuses to believe he even has the disorder, after doing her own research on the internet.
With his pursuit of what he’s passionate about also being his downfall, Darius becomes an almost Shakespearian character, and it’s hard not to be on his side and end up rooting for the guy. This is a fascinating and heartbreaking portrait of a complex and larger than life character who has been absolutely failed by the justice system, but keeps breaking the law in order to do what he loves.
Off the Rails is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. Tickets and showtimes can be found right here.