Judge Christopher Kulik got emotional knots while riding this train ride of family ties.
"Do not go gentle into that good night…"—Dylan Thomas
Clint Eastwood's daughter Alison is now in the spotlight. The sometime actress has now made her directorial debut—without financial assistance from her father—and the results are more than auspicious. Written with emotional dexterity by Micky Levy, this sentimental but rewarding drama has strong performances, fine direction, and a story which strays from the obvious as much as possible. Rails & Ties received a limited release last year, and now Warner Bros. gives it the digital treatment.
Facts of the Case
Devoted railroad engineer Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon, Mystic River) is at a crossroads. His lovely wife Megan (Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, Pollack) has survived two bouts with cancer, though now it's terminal. Because of her fragile health, their marriage has been stale for some time, and it's about to be seriously tested with the arrival of a 9-year-old boy.
Davey Danner's (Miles Heizer, ER) mother has just committed suicide. She was killed when the train that Stark was operating smashed into her car. As a result, the precious boy is placed in a foster home, though he is determined to confront the man responsible for not stopping the train. Meanwhile, Megan has decided to leave Tom for awhile, even though she has minimal time remaining. When Davey shows up, Megan takes a liking to him and says she'll stay if Davey stays. The conflicted Tom has no choice, and little does he realize how much of a profound effect Davey will bring to the home.
If Levy's screenplay is about anything, it's dealing with death. Davey and Megan share something in common, and thus a bond is instantly formed. Tom and Davey both have a passion for trains and railroads, which causes them to slowly, but surely, see eye to eye. The dialogue isn't saccharine, but realistic to the core, as Levy makes her characters as human and flawed as possible. While it may sound depressing at first, it actually becomes just uplifting enough where you may not have the need to reach for the tissues. (P.S. That's Levy's voice on the phone as Detective Crane.)
Eastwood's debut as a director is more than impressive. It's clear she's learned much from her father, and visually tells this story clearly and eloquently. Her handling of flashbacks is particularly provocative and effective, if not altogether original. She doesn't depend on handheld shots, but rather keeps the camera still, with some nice close-ups throughout. Cinematographer Tom Stern has worked with Clint many times before, and now provides Alison with some stunning photography. Another asset is the music, courtesy of Michael Steven and Alison's brother Kyle.
Both Bacon and Harden are magnificent, plain and simple. Bacon has stretched his talent considerably in the past decade, starting with 1998's Stir of Echoes, and climaxing with riveting turns in The Woodsman and, most recently, Death Sentence. He wisely plays Tom Stark in a brooding and quiet—-though not unsympathetic—-manner, which gets more potent as each scene unfolds. Matching him is the always superb Harden as the afflicted wife who just wants to find some kind of contentment in the world before she dies. If this role were in the hands of less-than-stellar actress, I'm not sure it would have worked so well; her facial expressions and smiles alone offer warmth and tenderness.
I always find it difficult to judge child actors for one reason and one reason only: inexperience. Naturalness is the key trait for a young actor/actress to raise a few eyebrows. Miles Heizer didn't make me cringe like Jake Lloyd did in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace; however, he didn't raise my eyebrows either. I bought him as this emotionally scarred kid, and that's all that matters.
Warner Bros. has supplied us with a nice, if rather empty, DVD package. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen, with the audio in 5.1 Surround. Visually and sonically, the film is as pristine as it could be, with no scratches, hisses or debris anywhere. Black levels are strong, and the subtitles (in English, Spanish, and French) never interfere with the picture. Extras are unfortunately minimal, with two deleted scenes as the sole submission. The first was quite powerful and I was surprised that Alison cut it, though the second was understandable, as it included an unnecessary plot thread. While a commentary by Alison would have been wonderful, Warner's presentation is good enough to warrant a thumbs up.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with many contemporary films—Unfaithful, Broken Flowers, No Country For Old Men—the ending leaves the viewer a bit cold and confused. Some films are worthy of these type of endings, though I don't think Rails & Ties is one of them. I loved and respected the characters so much, it's a shame that Alison wants to depart on a down note, even when it's meant to be upbeat. Naturally, I won't say what happens, but if you see the film, you'll understand what I'm getting at.
Right before Rails & Ties was released, Warner Bros. unveiled August Rush. The latter marked the directorial debut of Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of director Jim Sheridan ) and was meant to be a sweet, upbeat tale, but instead turned into gallons of syrup. I just didn't see the talent in Sheridan to make it a competent feature. Alison Eastwood is the completely the opposite. It's clear she wanted to wait until the right time to helm her first film, no matter how much training she might have received on the sets of her father's pictures. Granted, she had a great script to back her up, but she makes Rails & Ties her own with a gentle touch. On that note, the film is highly recommended.
Eastwood, Levy, and the actors are free to go, along with the film. Warner is acquitted of all charges. Court is adjourned.
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