“I’m just a train buff,” Darius McCollum says, which is a little bit like Mozart saying “I just fool around with notes.”
For, as the excellent documentary “Off The Rails” demonstrates, McCollum is obsessed with trains (and buses for that matter) past the point of legality, or even reason. And he has more than paid the price for his passion.
Something of a media celebrity in New York, where headlines about his behavior range from “Transit Recidivist” to “Train In the Neck,” McCollum does not just love transit, he is compelled to get behind the wheels of buses and trains and take off even though he is not now nor has he ever been an employee of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority.
The powers that be, as might be imagined, are not as amused as headline writers about McCollum’s actions. Age 50, he has been arrested 30 times in the last 35 years for his transit endeavors and is currently behind bars.
As presented in Adam Irving’s documentary, McCollum is an engaging individual, articulate, intelligent and likable. There is an asterisk to McCollum’s story, however, that places these events, which initially amuse, into quite a different context.
For McCollum has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which can lead to an intense interest in one subject as well as a love of routines and schedules.
“I’m really good at trains but I can’t seem to figure out people,” he says at one point. “Yes, I broke the law but what do we do about the diagnosis that caused me to break the law?”
As these facts emerge, as we learn that McCollum has spent a full third of his life in prison, the story “Off the Rails” tells darkens and becomes less amusing as it details a system that seems incapable of making the punishment fit the crime.
McCollum’s fascination with trains began innocently enough, with his mother, Liz, taking him everywhere on the transit system. “It was just something I fell in love with,” he says. “My home became the subway and I didn’t want to give it up.”
An incident at school, where a classmate stabbed him with a pair of scissors and nearly killed him, intensified this feeling. “This became my safe haven, my new school, they taught me how things worked.”
For one of the themes of “Off the Rails” is how transit employees adopted McCollum as kind of a mascot when he was a kid and gradually taught him all the skills he would need, including how to drive buses and trains.
Soon his knowledge of all things transit became encyclopedic; he acquired 139 transit-related keys, and he so knew how to talk the talk and walk the walk that everyone who saw him just assumed he was a legitimate employee.
The more time “Off the Rails” spends with McCollum, the less the usual journalistic descriptions like “joyriding” or “hijacking” seem to fit his activities. The man himself sees what he does as a benevolent act, the donation of his time and knowledge to helping the public out.
Director Irving employs re-creations to show us episodes from McCollum’s early years and, in addition to the man himself, interviews autism experts, one of his lawyers, even his despairing mother who finally says “I turned him over to God. I said, ‘You take care of him.’”
The key question “Off the Rails” raises is how McCollum’s actions should be treated. Are his crimes victimless, or is he a menace to the public? Should he be put behind bars in terrifying facilities like Rikers Island or given a job at the MTA museum?
Dramatist Jude Domski, who wrote a play about him that was well-received at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, is sympathetic, and Variety has recently reported that Julia Roberts is considering playing his attorney in a feature film. The only thing that’s certain about Darius McCollum is that interest in him is not going away.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
Playing Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.
‘Off the Rails.’ An initially amusing documentary about a New York man who likes to joyride with subway trains darkens and becomes less comical as it details a system that seems incapable of making the punishment fit the crime. — Kenneth Turan