Before they became transfixed by their electronic devices, there was a time when little boys loved trains, whether playing with models or imagining themselves in a real-life version of “Thomas and Friends.” Of course very few childhood enthusiasms can translate perfectly intact to adulthood, which is pretty much the predicament faced by the real-life protagonist of “Off the Rails.” Adam Irving’s documentary profiles the already somewhat notorious case of a grown man with Asperger’s Syndrome who for decades has been unable to stop himself from repeatedly, competently yet illegally, assuming control of New York City subway trains — no matter how many times he’s been jailed for it. Though the film eventually grows as repetitious as its subject’s habit, this odd tale has an undeniable bizarro human-interest fascination. Having traveled extensively on the fest circuit the past six months, the picture is wading into Oscar-qualifying limited-theatrical runs.
“I’m really good with trains, but I can’t seem to figure out people” is how Darius McCollum describes himself after having already spent half his adult life in prison. A nerdy African-American Big Apple native bullied from an early age, he was at one juncture attacked with scissors by another youth. That “turning point” induced a great distrust of his peers, triggering a subsequent behavioral loop of running away, being committed and put on heavy psychotropic pharmaceuticals, and so forth. Frequently fleeing to the relative safety of the subway system in the late ’70s, this curious kid ingratiated himself with the workers there, some of whom went so far as to unofficially train him in various capacities. He made news in 1981, at age 15, when he got caught joyriding (or rather joy-driving) the E Train; a conductor pal who wanted to sneak off to see his girlfriend had asked McCollum to take over.
That first time proved as addicting as heroin. Darius’ crimes have all been victimless — whether operating a train, driving a bus, collecting tolls, maintaining tracks, or assuming any of the other roles for which he has stealthily acquired appropriate uniforms and even keys. And he has never caused an accident. Nor has he deviated from the standard routes and procedures, of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge. Nonetheless, his criminal record and mental issues have rendered impossible the one thing that would seemingly solve his obsessive problem: getting an actual job with the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
As a felon, he has found any employment increasingly hard to come by, which has led to sporadic homelessness. The consequences of his continuing transit antics were exacerbated by a shyster lawyer who exploited McCollum for publicity while often needlessly leaving him abandoned in jail. He’s serving a sentence on Rikers Island when finally assigned a much-improved new representative, Sally Butler. But by then (amid his 29th incarceration at age 45 in 2010), his legal options are sorely limited, and in the jarringly violent milieu of prison, the therapy he desperately needs isn’t available.
It’s a complicated, messy history marked by endless recidivism and the subject’s inability to resist his compulsions when released back into freedom. (Nor is his plight aided by his fondness for the media-driven celebrity each new arrest brings.) First-time documentary director Irving uses a variety of tactics to diversify this doomed-to-repeat-itself narrative, including brief reenactments, a wide range of interviewees, a running thread of recited letters between Darius and his long-suffering mother, plus clever use of graphics and animation. It’s an attention-getting tale with a colorful “star.” Still, after an hour or so, interest begins to flag, as we realize this “public transit bandit” who imagines himself a public-service Good Samaritan may never exit his revolving-door predicament.
Nonetheless, there’s enough drama as well as novelty here to make “Off the Rails” worthwhile. One interesting theme is the ways in which the law can trap people who have clinical mental conditions; at one point Darius’ best hope appears to be joining his elderly ma in North Carolina, yet his probation conditions won’t allow that. There are also occasional curve balls like the protagonist’s unlikely marriage to an Ecuadoran emigre, who suspects him of being unfaithful — only to discover she’s been thrown over for his subway addiction.
A notable plus in the well-assembled package is Duncan Thum and Steve Gernes’ quirky electronic score, which finds the right skewed tone to suggest the subject’s mixture of childlike simplicity and high level of unconventional intelligence.