Off The Rails (2016)
*Streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.
This year has seen a preponderance of excellent documentaries, as no doubt the Oscar race will attest. Many have been all-too-topical, as increasing police violence, hate crimes, and the divide between the rich and poor ever widens. Adam Irving’s Off the Rails joins Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Andrew Cohn’s Night School in an examination of the intersection of poverty, race, and perceived criminality, this time through the singular life and more singular crimes of Darius McCollum.
McCollum’s story is an odd one: born and raised in Queens, he became increasingly fascinated by the New York transit systems, especially the subway, as an escape into the calming world of schedules and time tables that contrasted with the uncertainty of his life above-ground. Transit workers favored him with tours and lessons on the intricate workings of the system, increasing his fascination and plunging him deeper in an obsession. When he was fifteen, McCollum wound up accidentally commandeering a subway train when a transit worker left him in charge. He safely made all the stops along the route until he was caught and arrested. Thus began a so-called “life of crime,” which resulted in his being jailed 32 times for impersonating transit officials and stealing trains and buses. McCollum became what he refers to as a “volunteer” in the MTA, attending trade union meetings, working for workers’ rights, and even successfully impersonating a superintendent. He’s spent twenty-three years in a maximum security facility, despite never injuring anyone.
If ever there was a criminal who shouldn’t be in prison, it’s Darius McCollum. He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, though this made little difference to the municipal authorities or the DA’s office. His crimes, while potentially dangerous, are victimless: despite commandeering hundreds of subway trains and buses, McCollum has never injured anyone, and, according to the film, has even been responsible for helping people in crisis. His passion for the MTA is real; his love for it unique among workers. Yet he’s never been employed by the MTA, who views him as a danger and an embarrassment. The news media refers to him as “joy-riding” on trains, labelling him “notorious,” a “transit bandit,” as though his crimes are entirely self-serving and constitute public endangerment.
The film spends most of its runtime in examining McCollum’s character and obsession, conducting long interviews with him, his mother, attorneys, social workers, and psychiatrists. A picture emerges of a bright, capable boy who took to the transit system as a world in which things made sense: trains run on a schedule, there are rules and regulations, structure. Because of his very public arrests, McCollum was barred from working for the MTA (he applied to them twice and was rejected both times). As his crimes mounted up, the MTA continued to decline to employ him. His lack of comfort and direction in life only made him retreat more to the place where things made the most sense, stealing more trains and resulting in a cycle that landed him in increasingly secure facilities until he was imprisoned at Rikers Island, awaiting trial.
But although the film takes McCollum as a very special case, his experience exposes the severe failings of a criminal justice system that is incapable of dealing with a man like him: someone whose crimes are strange, non-violent, and largely non-threatening. Judges refuse to take his Asperger’s into account; he’s left in prison for years awaiting trial; he’s given little social or economic support once he does emerge from prison. Now in his fifties, he’s never held a regular job, never paid rent, never supported himself. Despite a small support network of attorneys, social workers, his mother, and an Imam who worked in his prison, McCollum continues to return to the same behavioral pattern, unable to break the cycle by himself and evidently without the extensive support and therapy that he needs. The system has rejected him, preferring to spend millions of dollars prosecuting and imprisoning him rather than trying to help and understand his problems and find a solution. It is a spectacular failure of the justice system that a non-violent criminal, a man who has never harmed anyone, has spent so much time behind bars.
Off the Rails has a few weaknesses. As McCollum falls in and out of jail, the story itself takes on a cyclical structure, which does become a bit wearing nearing the end. There are also gaps in the narrative: interviews with psychiatrists and Asperger’s advocates are featured, but it’s never explained how long or how often they’ve worked with McCollum, or if they’re simply there as authorities on Asperger’s. The film doesn’t really address the spectacular failure of a transit system with such lax security that someone without licensing or official training can operate a transit vehicle – a brief scene at the MTA bus depot shows that McCollum, or anyone, would easily be able to just drive off with a bus. Brief sequences of animation, as McCollum compares himself to Superman, fall flat and have an edge of unintentional mockery.
But any failings that Off the Rails has falls flat in light of the sorrowful and slightly hopeless story. The film sheds a clear light on the failings of the justice system in the United States, the way in which people are labeled criminals, and the needs for mental health support and therapy. By focusing on a unique story, the film manages to open up a narrative of injustice that spreads far wider than Darius McCollum. If the system has failed him, it has failed thousands of others like him. We see a justice system that doesn’t seem to want to rehabilitate or help prisoners, but to lock them up, throwing away their lives because they do not fit into prescribed social order. Darius McCollum has been wronged, and the justice system doesn’t seem to care.
Off the Rails is streaming exclusively on Sundance Now from December 8.