After watching Rails & Ties, I couldn't help but feel the film could've and should've been better. Rails & Ties marks the directorial debut of Alison Eastwood (daughter of Clint), and she should be applauded for taking on such difficult material for her debut behind the camera. While I found the first 35 minutes of the film moving and emotionally gripping, not long after that, the plot sunk into a series of melodramatic clichés found in bad television movies.
Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon) is a railroad engineer who doesn't just love his work; it seems to be the thing that defines him as a person. As the film opens, Tom is told he can take a day off to spend time with his wife Megan (Marcia Gay Harden), who has cancer. Tom just wants to work, and boards his beloved train for his shift.
It's clear early on that Tom is emotionally unavailable to his wife. In her opening scene, Megan, a nurse at the local hospital, is there to see her own doctor all alone. She asks him how much time she has left, and the answer leaves her crying in the hallway. We soon learn that even though she and Tom have been married for years, he hasn't been emotionally available to her for a long time. His passion lies with trains. At work, he's behind the throttle. At home, he tinkers with an elaborate train set in his garage.
Meanwhile, 11-year-old Davey Danner (Miles Heizer) is looking after his mother (Bonnie Root), who is clearly mentally ill. Today though, Davey is thrilled. His mother has announced that she is going to take him to see his favorite train. When the principal calls, Davey tells him that his mother has died. Mom takes Davey to the train crossing, pulls on to the tracks as Tom's train is getting closer, and passes out. Doing what he believes is by the book, Tom decides to keep going to avoid derailment. Davey escapes, but his mother is killed instantly.
"He didn't even try to stop!" Davey says over and over again. Rightly perhaps, he blames Tom for his mother's death. Tom remains strangely distant and convinced the hearing will bring vindication and allow him to get back behind the throttle of his beloved train. Even as he sits on a ten-day suspension, he tells his dying wife he can't go with her to San Francisco because he has to be around until he finds out the results of the hearing.
There are a couple more scenes that build a nice, emotional story around Tom, Megan, and young Davey. Then inexplicably, the script (by Micky Levy) veers off into melodramatic, unbelievable territory. While it's totally understandable Davey would find conditions at his foster home so unlivable that he would run away, it is way too easy for him to locate Tom Stark. While it is possible as a viewer to stretch reality a bit to believe that such a young boy would find the Starks, believing that he would be able to stay there long enough for them to begin to love each other is totally unrealistic.
In the real world, keeping Davey would be kidnapping, so presumably his visit would be over in minutes. I suppose once again we could suspend disbelief and call this plot development for the sake of the film, but the problem is that it doesn't fit with the first act, where Tom has built up an emotional wall and Megan is absolutely distraught over everything she failed to accomplish in life. Almost overnight, these three people have bonded like a family and are going out to restaurants, parks, and getting ice cream cones – Megan's terminal cancer seemingly forgotten.
Without giving away the ending, I know in real life some stories do end the way Rails & Ties does, but it seems like the easy way out, given the amount of time and emotional energy that was put into setting up what seemed to be an entirely different story. I found no comfort in the ending and felt like the film put me on an unnecessary emotional rollercoaster. I would love to know whether anyone besides Micky Levin did rewrites on the script, because the film plays out like it was culled together from several different ideas.
Despite the uneven script, the always reliable Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden deserve credit for turning in some brilliantly emotional moments as a couple in crises. Harden has several scenes where she personifies human suffering without seeming to try. At the start of the film, Kevin Bacon makes it clear that the railroad is his safe haven and the rule book his guide, with just the expressions on his face.
I don't think it's fair to put the blame for the serious flaws of Rails & Ties at the feet of Alison Eastwood. She was dealing with a fundamentally flawed script that even the most seasoned directors couldn't have rescued. Perhaps she should have chosen better material for her first feature, but I respect her for trying to tackle a difficult subject. It will be interesting to see how her next project develops.
The Rails & Ties DVD is presented in widescreen format with Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound. The film also includes English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The DVD offers little in the way of special features. There are a few additional scenes.