Twenty million pounds of metal, relentless speed, frantic shadow-play, all-devouring sound: Train hopping, as one of the modern-day tramps in Sarah George’s doc Catching Out puts it, is a good way to batter down the ego. After traveling thousands of miles crisscrossing the country, who wouldn’t reach a state of transcendent insight? But somewhere along the line, George’s portrait of hobo lives gets stuck in self-absorption, and for all the lip service her subjects pay to freedom, one quickly feels trapped in the company of people who’ve had perhaps too much time to think about their place in, or alongside, society. The anti-materialist broadsides are predictably naive. A man known as Switch, who has started a family with fellow rider Baby Girl, declares, “I find, like, civilization—the straights—I find it very tedious.” (We all do, sweetheart.) Then there’s Jessica, who ends a muddleheaded complaint about the difficulties of transportation in our modern world by declaring, “I wish it were the medieval ages.” (No, you don’t.)
George might be aware of the limits of rail romanticization; why else shoot the much rhapsodized landscape like so much rancid salad? There’s the occasional wry line, as when one rider mentions “trying to get to Pennsylvania just to get the hell out of Ohio,” but ultimately everything feels one-sided and sanitized. The most dramatic moment is actually off-topic: A snippet from the nightly news shows Lee—an environmental activist who’s the most articulate of George’s hobos—commanding a trophy hunter to finish off an animal he’s so inexpertly wounded.
Lee calls train hopping “one of those few genuinely American things, like jazz or having sex in cars.” But there’s no music here, and no mention of sex, or race and racism in the rail world, hobo-on-hobo violence, or hobo hygiene. Everyone involved seems unaware of the Sullivan’s Travels fallacy: This is what O Brother, Where Art Thou? might have been like, had Sturges’s freight-car-catching Sullivan been able to make it. And since the participants aren’t truly down and out (they all have family to fall back on), is anything at stake but their maverick spirit?