You won’t meet a nicer or more well-intentioned criminal that Darius McCollum.
The New York City resident has been arrested more than 30 times for impersonating subway and bus drivers. Those are only the times he was caught. The hitch is that he sneaks onto these mass transit vehicles as a driver in uniform and competently drives his routes.
Director Adam Irving’s film, “Off the Rails,” is a sympathetic and heart-rending look at McCollum’s plight. His compulsion is driven by Asperger’s syndrome, an apparent inability to stop illegally performing a job that isn’t his.
McCollum, observers note, is a gregarious and likable guy, which makes the justice system’s inability to deal with him all the more saddening. In a different world, he’d make a model employee. The reasons he can’t generate the film’s frustrating dramatic tension.
McCollum was a smart child with a loving mother. When he got older and experienced bullying at school, he began retreating into an obsession with the complex workings on a train system. As McCollum says, his Asperger’s means he’s better with abstractions than reading social cues.
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The transit workers were fascinated by having a child around who was curious about their work and often seemed to know more than they did. Eventually, a teenage McCollum was drafted to “fill in” for a driver, was caught and made his first headlines.
While the material would be well-suited to a feel-good Hollywood film in which McCollum is given an MTA job, the director quotes an anonymous employee discussing the risk it would pose to passengers. The subway system is a massive enterprise, with a single train bearing thousands of lives at a time. Its thick regime of rules, he points out, was developed piece by piece from accidents or near-misses.
Instead of a Robin Hood story, the latter half of the film functions as a critique of the justice system's focus on incarceration instead of rehabilitation. A therapist notes that the cost of imprisoning McCollum is vastly more expensive than therapy for the root problem, which sets McCollum in heightening conflict with the authorities.
His joyrides weren't filmed, so the director uses re-creations with actors and some animated sequences to fill in the gaps between on-camera interviews and shots of trains clacking by and jail doors clacking shut. There are myriad interviews with his mother, mental health professionals, a playwright who wrote a script based on him, and an author with Asperger’s who gives some insight into living with the syndrome.
“Off the Rails” doesn’t pretend to answer the riddle at its center: What can you do about Darius?