While the way Americans view people on the autism spectrum has grown more positive in recent years, Adam Irving’s feature documentary Off the Rails illuminates, through the story of notorious railman impersonator Darius McCollum, how our legal system has lagged behind.
McCollum was famously first arrested as a fifteen-year-old taking what the papers called a “joy ride” in an MTA train — the only joy McCollum’s gotten from commandeering a train has been in following the rules and getting everybody home safe and quick. But he bears a more fraught history than suggested by the amusing nature of his frequent victimless crimes.
Irving’s found the perfect criminal to win audience sympathy, because this quiet, driven man who’s been jailed more than thirty times for hijacking public vehicles also has Asperger’s and happens to be a positive, glowing person, despite one of his classmates stabbing him as a child, launching him on his lifelong obsessive mission to drive trains.
Watching this film stirs a mix of delight in the depth of McCollum’s train fascination and pity for how neglected he’s been by a system not built to recognize that the root of his crimes is not simply criminal impulse. Grainy re-enactments depict McCollum’s early growing obsession with public transit, while intermittent whimsical illustration gives this New York scenes an almost Sesame Street appeal. These are tempered by some more serious talking-head interviews with social workers and moving scenes of McCollum repeatedly getting out of prison and standing on the train platforms. This is a bittersweet film, one where you’ll be cheering on the protagonist, even when he’s clearly breaking the law.
Off the Rails
Directed by Adam Irving
The Film Collaborative
Opens November 18, Metrograph