Darius McCollum, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a young man, is notorious in New York for his obsession with trains and buses. Now 50, he has been arrested 30 times in the past 35 years for impersonating transit workers while driving subway trains and buses loaded with passengers. He has spent half his life in prison, where he currently is residing once again, despite the efforts of lawyers and therapists to intervene.
McCollum and the people surrounding him are interviewed extensively in Adam Irving’s fine documentary “Off the Rails,” which never sets McCollum up as the wacky figure of fun as proclaimed by so many of the New York tabloids. In the movie, his obsession with trains is linked to his illness, his need to secure a haven. He sees himself as the man who brings his “passengers” safely to their destination.
Irving doesn’t skimp the inherent thorny legal issues involved in McCollum’s situation. As one of the prosecutors explains, what is one to do with someone whose recidivism poses a potential threat to people? Given the opportunity, between prison stints, to reform, McCollum heartbreakingly reverts over and over again to his old ways despite his serial protestations, no doubt genuinely felt, to shape up.
If nothing else, “Off the Rails,” which includes a few too many reenactments for my taste, does what many good documentaries do. It provides us with a window into the psyche of a person worth caring about. Grade: A- (Unrated.)