Darius McCollum loves public transit. More specifically, he loves the trains that stream through the MTA system. The New York subway has been a lifelong obsession for him—a playground, a safe haven, and a place where new friends are never in short supply. It’s also a forbidden source of temptation, as Darius has been arrested more than 30 times for impersonating a train operator as well as various other transit employees. Considering his passion for the Transit Authority and his considerable knowledge of subway routes and procedures, one might wonder why Darius doesn’t apply for a position with the MTA rather than continue on as a criminal. As director Adam Irving details in Off the Rails, the reality of the situation is not so simple.
At the root of Darius’s compulsion is his Asperger’s syndrome. A defining characteristic of the disorder is an intense interest in one subject, and this has led Darius to study everything there is to know about the New York subway system. There is nothing malicious about his repeated transgressions. While most hijackings of public transit might spring from violent derangement or anarchistic intent, Darius’ actions rise from personal fulfillment and uncommon dutifulness. He follows the schedules, making every stop without deviation and carefully attending to any malfunctions with the necessary precautions.
Off the Rails takes viewers through the origins of this infatuation using home movies, cartoons, and testimonies from his mother as well as extensive interviews with the subject himself. We learn that Darius was bullied as a child and struggled to make friends. He found solace in the subway, where people didn’t judge him. Beloved by MTA employees for his enthusiasm, Darius became a kind of junior volunteer, helping out the operators with various tasks and eventually being taught how to run the train (an experience he compares to losing his virginity). But things turned sour when he was spotted behind the controls by police at the age of 15. Darius was arrested on the spot and soon became Public Enemy Number One to MTA executives for his repeated crimes, as posters bearing his image covered the subway walls. Even after growing to be of age, every application Darius sent to the corporation was rejected. Most of his life since that first arrest has found him wavering between jail time and virtual homelessness.
The documentary builds upon the context of Darius’s past to deliver a compelling study of his character and inner conflicts. We spend a lot of time with Darius, as the filmmakers capture his feelings with a compassionate camera, juxtaposing personal reflections with vibrant montages of train yards, bustling subway stations and brief scenes of everyday NYC street life. Listening to Darius, one gets the impression of a heartbreakingly sincere man—a man who sees the value in a few words of levity spoken to brighten another person’s day, who refers to Superman as a moral standard to live by, and who wrestles with delusions of his capacity for self-control. Darius may call himself “shy,” but he makes some fascinating insights, and his consistent presence really holds the film together.
Unfortunately, the audience isn’t allowed to draw its own conclusions on his behavior, as multiple therapists and Asperger’s specialists are brought on as talking heads. A certain degree of clinical observation is necessary to better understand Darius’ needs, but the impulse to frequently cut to the experts feels excessive. Rather than letting the implications of the subject’s words and actions stand by themselves (with perhaps some minor supporting commentary from those close to him), the filmmakers lean a little too heavily on the objective assessments to fill out their central characterization. As a result, Darius’ narrative comes off as slightly less intimate and more constructed.
About halfway through Off the Rails, the film begins to shift its focus from Darius to the legal system he finds himself ensnared in. Irving confronts the perpetual cycle of law-breaking and incarceration, taking aim at a courtroom that fails to acknowledge Darius’ unique psychological circumstances and a correctional department that doesn’t know what to do with him. This is where the sound bites from therapists and experts are most meaningful. The film campaigns for common sense solutions, calling upon the MTA to hire a man who would likely be their best employee and arguing for court rulings that wouldn’t serve to exacerbate the situation. A portrait of injustice begins to take shape and Darius is effectively painted as the victim of institutional neglect.
Pulling its unusual subject matter from the tongue-in-cheek headlines of local TV news, Off the Rails serves to humanize a person too often made out to be an eccentric curiosity. It’s a solid character study that admirably balances empowerment, hardship, empathy, and advocacy.