"Rails & Ties" reps a capable but modest directorial debut by Alison Eastwood.

Reserved, careful and largely predictable in the way it plays out its wrenching emotional crises, “Rails & Ties” reps a capable but modest directorial debut by Alison Eastwood. The tale of a middle-aged husband and wife who work through a professional tragedy and a medical trauma when fate lands a young boy at their doorstep, the pic possesses some straightforward virtues, but is so discreet that its emotional payoff is delayed too long. High-profile fest bows may create unrealistic expectations for this unashamedly old-fashioned drama; this Warner Bros. release’s target audience lies with heartland women rather than highbrows.

In almost every respect, Micky Levy’s original script resembles a story that feels more rooted in the 1950s than today, especially as it regards several of the characters’ deep-rooted love of trains, both real and model. This preoccupation proves quaintly appealing, but it also, along with the characters’ emotional reticence, places the action in a vaguely unreal, abstract environment untouched by contempo culture.

Eastwood fille does a crisp, efficient job of setting the wheels in motion. Locomotive engineer Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon) can’t seem to wait to climb aboard and roll the Stargazer Express out of Los Angeles’ Union Station up the coast to Seattle, despite having a wife, Megan (Marcia Gay Hardin), who’s dying of cancer. As time will show, Tom is an emotionally stunted man/boy, unable to be of any true assistance to his ailing mate or to say the right things to her.

In equally bad shape is a younger lady who parks her car, with her young son inside, on a rail crossing in the Simi Valley as Tom’s train is fast approaching. Against the instincts of his fellow engineer Otis (Eugene Byrd), who wants him to slam on the brakes, Tom follows regulations and only moderately slows down, resulting in a crash that kills the mother; the boy escapes just in time.

Insisting it was an obvious suicide, Tom is nonetheless suspended, pending a hearing. Now stuck at home with his sick wife, things go from bad to worse as Megan begins regretting her whole life and especially not having had kids. In her last stab at throwing off her constricted existence, she announces she’s going to leave the uncommunicative Tom, and light out to San Francisco.

In a series of events that doesn’t ring entirely true, the suddenly orphaned kid, Davey Danner (Miles Heizer), gets immediately tossed into a frightful foster home; there’s not even a funeral for his mom. Escaping the foster home, the 9-year-old miraculously finds his way to Tom’s house and, after accusing him of killing his mother, quickly changes his tune when he finds a new potential mother in Megan.

Anyone who at this point can’t see where this is all headed is asleep at the switch. For a modern kid, Davey has an unusual fascination for Tom’s expansive model train layout; the two have hours of fun playing with it. Tom knows it’s wrong for the son of his victim to stay with them, but one little threat from Megan overrides him. For her part, Megan takes up piano and begins feeling ever-so-much better.

Megan has her periodic outbursts of misery and anger, but mostly the characters remain so bottled up you’d think they lived in Iowa in 1953. There’s no indication of the Starks’ past or what they might have shared in better days, and certainly little trace of intimacy between them. Dialogue consists so much of simplistic homilies and hollow expressions of what they think they should be saying that it’s sometimes difficult to tell if it’s meant to illuminate the banality of their existence or is simply banal.

And yet, there is a directness and lack of fuss about the film that impresses in its own way. The compositions are clean and well judged, the emotional lines are clear — sometimes too much so — and Eastwood’s attraction to traditional, elemental story values could bode well for future ventures. What she needs is more confidence to bust out of the script’s straightjacket to embellish the characters and detail their environment.

Thesps effectively hit the notes they play, but seem locked into fairly narrow conceptions of their characters — Harden as the long-suffering wife needing an outlet for her feelings, Bacon as the immature man heading for a life change — rather than being able to find a way of making them three-dimensional.

Given the fact that he’s just lost his mother, the Davey character is too nice and cooperative by half; quite late on, however, he does crack, providing the film with a degree of the intensity and catharsis it’s needed, and young Heizer does a nice job with this scene.

Production values are thoroughly pro for the small-scale venture, which looks fine but occasionally becomes mawkish due to the sometimes corny folk rock tunes on the soundtrack.

Rails & Ties

Production

A Warner Bros. release. Produced by Robert Lorenz, Peer Oppenheimer, Barrett Stuart. Co-producer, Tim Moore. Directed by Alison Eastwood. Screenplay, Micky Levy.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Tom Stern; editor, Gary D. Roach; music, Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens; production designer, James J. Murakami; set decorator, Ronald R. Reiss; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Walt Martin; supervising sound editor, Alan Robert Murray; assistant director, Donald Murphy; casting, Matt Huffman. Reviewed at Warner Bros. studios, Burbank, Aug. 29, 2007. (In Telluride Film Festival; also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Tom Stark - Kevin Bacon Megan Stark - Marcia Gay Harden Davey Danner - Miles Heizer Renee - Marin Hinkle Otis Higgs - Eugene Byrd Susan Garcia - Laura Ceron Judy Neasy - Margo Martindale Laura Danner - Bonnie Root

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