It’s rare that cinema stumbles upon a character as fascinating as Darius McCollum. His need to ride on and/or commandeer trains is so deep that it has landed him in jail over 30 times. While Off The Rails is on the outset a character study of a man with Asperger’s syndrome, the result of which is a fixation on trains and public transit, it’s really about how the legal system is incapable of dealing with issues of mental health.
Off the Rails offers an excellent balance between an isolated character and larger debates around the possible shortcomings in the legal system making it an overall compelling documentary worth seeing. Darius is an intriguing character to watch, there’s an integral part to this pattern of behavior though: he acts as any transit worker would, stopping at all the stops and helping out wherever he can. In fact, in some cases he has been more efficient and friendlier than a typical transit employee and this is because he finds genuine joy in driving subway trains and city busses. Darius McCollum is not the hardened criminal that one would think of when hearing about a man who has spent over half of his life in prison. That’s the point, the film frames Darius’ compulsions as a direct result of his Asperger’s, which explains why he does what he does despite being jailed numerous times.The barrier then is the broken legal system that just can’t find a place for him other than prison.
Off the Rails offers one side of the story without being too heavy handed in its approach. The viewer is left to decide whether or not Darius’ behavior is truly a result of his Asperger’s. That being said the film does make a choice and offers up a particular rhetoric, but it works. Given the evidence and the inherently endearing nature of Darius as portrayed on screen, it’s difficult to not feel bad for the guy.
Ultimately, Off the Rails focuses on a case that is too nuanced and interesting to pass up.
This review was originally published as part of our Hot Docs 2016 coverage.