When I was a kid I watched Snively Whiplash, the dastardly villain of Rocky and Bullwinkle, as he would endeavor to divert the train to another track, trying to ruin everyone’s day. Snively’s appearance happens much too often in life for my taste. Diversion from the track, displacement from the norm, is both metaphor and message in Rails and Ties. Another successful directorial debut, this time from Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison, hinges on what we all know too well: our train can be switched to another track at any time.
No character is spared a detour. Marcia Gay Harden’s Megan, twice in remission from cancer, is attacked again. Kevin Bacon’s Tom Stark has the job he loves wrecked by a suicidal mother. Davey (played with brilliant emotions by Miles Heizer) is the son who escapes physical harm only to be left parentless. And if life’s curves did not themselves manage a crash, each person sideswipes the other in their own relational derailment. While some will only manage a trifling connection to Lifetime movies in their reviews, the pretzel twists seem too much like reality to brush off so lightly. Important, too, is leaving the audience with the unasked but obvious question, “OK, what would you do?” Movies that place the audience in plausible situations haunt the sensitive viewer who knows too well that life can veer off the track at any moment. Harden takes us on a humanly earnest emotional ride for which she is to be commended. Bacon has taken the track less traveled in the last few years of his career (The Woodsman, The Air I Breathe, Death Sentence) punching our collective tickets to see characters that exist but are all too often unseen. Eastwood’s direction delivers the point: ties are necessary to ride the rails.
Emotional ties are driven spikes into the storyline. How will humans respond when there is nothing they can do to stop the oncoming train? How do we manage to shift to another point of view we believe is right but goes against every experience we know? How are family units connected when there is no “unit” to speak of? How do any of us muster the courage to continue down the tracks when we’ve had previous encounters with that headlight in the tunnel? Lesser films would cater to flimsy characterization and standard plotlines. Not so Rails and Ties. Redemption is absent. What the audience does realize is that while we may have gotten off at the wrong stop, we are still able to jump the next train.
Trains, no doubt, are a central character. But the film is much more about diversion, being displaced from the tracks of life by outside influences beyond our control. I think that the writers of those old cartoons wrote out of experience. They knew that the damsel in distress would someday be us. But we are never left alone. Goodness and grace are born beyond our earthly boundaries: the tracks always run both ways.
Rated PG-13 for brief language, adult situations, some peril, and brief nudity.
Dr. Mark Eckel, teaches at Crossroads Bible College
 See my comments about directorial debuts in my review of Frozen River.