Okay, look: melodrama, I can handle; tearjerkers, I can handle. This sort of monstrosity not so much. Rails & Ties, the directorial debut of Alison Eastwood, is one of the most shamelessly contrived, onion-waving movies I’ve ever seen. To describe the plot is to parody the film. Though impeccably acted and directed with a solemn, professional gloss, it sinks under the weight of its absurdity.
So let’s see here. Kevin bacon plays Tom, a gruff, withdrawn train engineer (the railroad is his life! His life!) who has learned that his wife Megan (Marcia Gay Harden) is dying of cancer, but can’t bring himself to stop driving trains long enough to spend time with her. Megan, facing the end, laments all the wasted time and harangues Tom about the fact that they “never got around” to having children. Meanwhile, Tom rams his train into the car of a suicidal woman, killing her and orphaning her 10 year-old son Davey. He could have pulled the emergency break but chose not to, for fear of derailing the train.
Davey, understandably bewilered and angry, ditches his foster home and seeks out Tom, attacking him on sight. But! Then! Having calmed down, Davey becomes the son Megan never had, and Megan the mother that Davey never had, and the three of them proceed to hide from Child Protective Services. Meanwhile Megan’s condition continues to deteriorate, a fact of which Davey remains unaware.
You get the idea. This is the kind of story that’s been carefully constructed for maximum hanky utilization, without regard for the fact that, well, most of this is kind of stupid — maudlin, over-dramatic, ridiculous. Occasionally, it becomes downright laughable: Tom’s constant, ever-so-manly pining for, uh, the Open Rails had me suppressing snickers (you’re expected to maintain a level of decorum here at Telluride). I didn’t believe a moment.
It’s actually nice to see Marcia Gay Harden not relegated to the role of The Wife or The Mother, and get to sink her teeth into a full-bodied character. And to the extent that the character stands apart from the ludicrous circumstances into which the film throws her, Gay Harden’s performance is effective, her excitement at having someone to love almost registering as an actual human emotion. Miles Heizer, who has a hefty part as Davey is also good, though the script vacillates between making him mature beyond his years (he’s “too grown up,” comments Tom) and roughly on the level of a 4 year-old.
This is a movie for non-moviegoers — people who are readily bamboozled by easy emotional cues (woman dying of cancer hugging cute little boy — time for tears). Technical proficiency notwithstanding, Rails & Ties is bush league, start to finish.