ZERO STARS/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras D
starring Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Miles Heizer, Marin Hinkle
screenplay by Micky Levy
directed by Alison Eastwood
by Ian Pugh Alison Eastwood's directorial debut makes its first--and, as it turns out, fatal--misstep by taking the wrong page from her father Clint's own career, applying a fundamentally tragic story to the straightforward misery of his winter output, thus bypassing the elegiac poetry of his late fall period. Distant wives dying of cancer, mentally unstable mothers tossing themselves into the paths of moving trains, and no one given the benefit of any examination beyond the prodding reminder that such things happen every day: Rails & Ties is another stultifying entry in the post-Crash, post-Babel cycle of cinema that doesn't want to educate or enlighten you with any perspective about these occurrences or their effect on humanity--it just wants to transform you into an emotional punching bag.
Because train engineer Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon) can't cope with the fact that his wife Megan (Marcia Gay Harden) has entered the final stages of terminal cancer, he decides to throw himself into his work. Just his luck that mentally unstable mother Laura Danner (Bonnie Root) should park her car in front of his train. With his life somehow thrown into further disarray, Tom's partner Otis (Eugene Byrd) helpfully explains it all for us: "You know what your problem is? Everything is dying around you and you just can't deal with it, can you?" Laura's 11-year-old son, Davey (Miles Heizer), managed to escape the crash, and runs away from foster care to unload his rage on Tom--but he warms up to the couple after they bring him into their home. Could he be the son-that-never-was who can reunite Tom and Megan at this eleventh hour? Of course he is, don't be stupid--this is the sort of hamfisted, ready-made drama on which bleeding-heart audiences thrive.
But Rails & Ties activates a pre-emptive defense mechanism by shoehorning its potential critics into the role of Renee (Marin Hinkle), the social worker searching for Davey after he disappears. She's essentially shamed into abandoning her investigation after Megan throws her advanced illness in Renee's face. (There's no shortage of cliché plotting and wishful thinking involved in a subsequent scene that sees Renee hanging up on the police, having independently determined that, golly, the Starks and their orphaned charge sure do make a nice little family.) It would be an interesting rumination on the lengths to which someone might to go to keep an ersatz family intact--that is, had the whole damned movie not been playing this reprehensible game with its viewers from the very first frame.
The performances are good, I guess, considering they're shackled to the reductive, pedestrian dialogue of Micky Levy's screenplay. Rails & Ties adheres to the same level of vulgar obviousness so consistently that, should you ever stumble upon a physical copy of the script, you'd expect its sledgehammer metaphors to be written out in all-caps for your convenience. Yes, Virginia, LIFE IS MORE LIKE A GREY AREA, AND MANY THINGS REMAIN UNCERTAIN; and yes, TOM'S TOY TRAIN SET SYMBOLIZES THAT LIFE GOES ON AFTER THE DEATH OF LOVED ONES. So let's just cap this disaster off with another condescendingly self-evident truth: yes, Micky, yes, Alison--mental illness and cancer are terrible conditions that tear marriages apart and inflict immeasurable pain on people who don't deserve it. Now what do you have to say about those people, exactly? I can't respect your film if you're not going to put any effort into fleshing out a collection of paper dolls, whose sole purpose of existence is apparently to tell me what I already know.
Warner brings Rails & Ties to DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation so sharp as to suggest a Lifetime Original Movie. (Naturally.) Still, it captures the film's autumnal palette quite nicely, even though its emphasis on beige and orange tends to brighten up the film's bleak patina a bit too much. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio delivers a few discrete sounds to the back channels--a railway signal here, a bird chirp there--but it seems noteworthy that I didn't find the train effects particularly powerful. Serving as the disc's sole special feature, eight minutes of "Additional Scenes" give us unnecessary explorations of Tom's own fatherless and train-obsessed childhood as well as Davey's reaction to an act of kindness from a fellow runaway. Trailers for Love in the Time of Cholera and The King of Kong cue up on startup. Originally published: December 9, 2008.