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October 29, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | October 29, 2007 |

Rails & Ties commits a common sin among first-time filmmakers: It assumes that its subject matter and premise are enough to carry it through to the end, to give it not only reason for being but somehow a claim to greatness. Instead of a story, director Alison Eastwood — daughter of Clint and sister to Kyle, who also co-composed the film’s score — merely creates a set-up; instead of a journey, there’s merely a single turn in the road from beginning to end. It’s not quite that Rails & Ties is a terrible movie, or even an actively bad one. Sure, the dialogue drifts into some pretty awful clichés, and emotional crises are solved as neatly as if this were a Very Special Episode of a Miller-Boyett sitcom. But Eastwood’s greatest sin here is simply believing that saying something is the same as feeling it; in other words, the film is full of potentially complicated situations that are never explored in depth because the filmmaker feels that simply the appearance of conflict is the same as actually having it. Even if Rails & Ties were howlingly bad, the kind of boneheaded tripe that wouldn’t even cut the mustard at Lifetime, it would still be taking risks and progressing its characters through recognizable (albeit shoddy) arcs. But as it is, it’s bland, dull, and worst of all, completely forgettable.

Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon) and his wife, Megan (Marcia Gay Harden), are drifting apart after years of marriage. This is obvious because Megan says things like, “You’re like sand, Tom. The harder I try to hold onto you, the faster you slip through my fingers,” and other painful analogies that only people in poorly written scripts find themselves saying. Tom is a railroad engineer and has been throwing himself into his work ever since Megan developed breast cancer years before, which she’s beaten twice with chemo but is now making a serious return. This, as you’d suspect, is obvious because Tom’s coworker says to him, “You’re dead inside! At least I’m alive, and everybody knows it.” Megan’s sickness has spread to her bones, making her death a matter of months, driving another silent wedge between them as Tom struggles to deal with the impending loss. Eastwood intercuts these early scenes of typical cinematic suburban malaise with sequences involving young Davey Danner (Miles Heizer), who’s 11 or so, and his pill-popping, alcoholic mom, Laura (Bonnie Root). Screenwriter Micky Levy, perhaps wanting to ensure that Laura sank beneath the weight of the stereotypes given her, also makes Laura a bit of a religious nut, adhering to a fervent brand of Catholicism that manifests itself in lots of praying for deliverance and an apparent steadfast refusal to see how close deliverance — e.g., asking for help, dropping the pills, whatever — really is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s hypocritical about their religion, but Levy and Eastwood go about it so half-heartedly it’s almost embarrassing.

Eventually, Laura loads up Davey in her battered old coupe and takes him to see the train, which he loves. They park by the tracks and wait for the engine to appear, and soon enough, the Stargazer Express, with Tom at the helm, comes around the bend. At this point, Laura, evidently working within a slightly enlightened Catholicism that permits both substance abuse and suicide, drives her car onto the tracks and waits for death. Tom, unwilling to hit the emergency brake for fear of derailing the passenger cars still coming around the turn, slows the train as much as he can but still hits the car doing almost 50; Davey escapes before the impact, but Laura is killed instantly. This is, or could be, the root of the film’s conflict, since it provides ample opportunity for Eastwood to examine the consequences of our decisions and what it means to live with them; Tom could have wrestled with his guilt, gone back and forth, drawn conclusions about the human experience, and so on. But instead of letting Tom deal with what it means to make a wrong decision — and more, what it means to not regret that — Eastwood’s film plays it safe by making Tom’s struggle one of definition, where he readjusts his calibration of right/wrong based on the circumstance. This queasy relativism spreads to Megan, too, eventually turning the film from a potential look at guilt and atonement into an example of how a cowardly screenwriter and inexperienced director hedge their bets by having their characters simply apply new rules of good/evil to any given situation. What’s even more dangerous, Eastwood seems to celebrate her characters for their ambivalence.

This weakness comes screaming home when Davey tracks down and Tom and Megan at their home and attacks Tom for letting Laura die. Tom is understandably uncomfortable with Davey’s presence, but Megan takes to him like she’s found a stray cat. She dotes on him and clearly begins to project onto him all the mothering urges she never had a chance to exorcise, given that she and Tom never had a child of their own. But then, Tom and Megan — mainly at Megan’s persuasion — take in Davey and let him stay with them for a while, and this is where Eastwood drops the ball. Rather than having the courage, honesty, and skill to show the dark side of Megan’s burgeoning nurturing fantasy, Eastwood goes so far as to commend her decision to do now what is best for Davey, but what feels best for Megan. The fact that Tom and Megan begin to care for Davey is a stunning development: Megan’s yearning for the son she never had is palpable and aching, and watching Tom learn to look into the eyes of the boy he orphaned is, for a moment, something worth seeing. But it dissolves into a one-sided, shallow view of the story. The inherent weirdness of the situation, from Megan’s emotional instability to Tom’s quick acceptance of the boy to Davey’s equally speedy absolution of Tom, is skimmed over entirely. The story only rears a potentially nuanced head once, when Tom looks at Megan while gathering clothes and linens for the boy and says, “What are we doing?” It’s all hanging there: The fact that they’re harboring a boy who’s being actively sought by police and child service workers, the fact that they’re digging deeper into a world of dangerous pretending. But Megan’s eyes get watery, and she replies, “I don’t know, but it feels good.” Ugh.

Levy’s clunky, artless dialogue often stumbles into outright cliché without a second thought, and it’s a shame to see actors of Bacon’s and Harden’s caliber having to recite their lines with such forced emotion. Their performances are almost admirable in their willingness to carry the weak story on their shoulders for so long, marking each station of the rote, predictable tale down to every montage and crying session. But these actors only came together in this film because of who Eastwood is, and more bluntly, who she’s related to; without her father’s filmmaking renaissance, she surely would never have been given the reins and allowed to make so dull and hammy a piece of melodrama. It’s not just that the film is dull; it’s that it’s dishonest, and unbelievable, and at times offensive. The best example of the latter is when a child services employee visits the Stark residence looking for Davey, at which point Megan changes into a bathrobe and stumbles out to meet the woman, coughing more than she needs to and actually — horribly, unbelievably — exaggerating the extent of her sickness to throw the woman off the trail and get her to leave. I know exactly what Eastwood is doing here, and it doesn’t feel good at all.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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