Dir. Alison Eastwood. US, 2007. 96 mins.
The feature-film directorial debut of Clint Eastwood's 35-year-old actress daughter, Alison Eastwood, Rails & Ties is an always serviceable, professionally accomplished film. Unfortunately, its ambitions are hampered by a central situation that is redolent of too many made-for-TV films, as well as by implausible plot complications that put too many disparate people together rather too conveniently.
Despite the fact that the film features the always-workmanlike veterans Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon in the lead roles, it is difficult to imagine that Warner Bros will enjoy large box-office returns from Rails & Ties, and theatrical prospects look thin in other territories as well.
The basic premise of the plot, from which all else follows, is that Megan, a nurse (Hardin), finds out in the opening minutes of the film that she has terminal cancer. Her greatest fear is not of dying, but that she has never really lived. Her feckless husband Tom (Bacon) is a railroad engineer who seems much more at home running his train than he is with Megan.
One day, Laura, a depressed and God-besotted woman, deliberately stops her car on the train tracks, with herself and her son Davey Danner (Heizer) inside. Following company procedures, Bacon decides not to throw on the emergency brake. Laura dies in the ensuing collision, but her son narrowly escapes.
After avoiding a persistent caseworker from social services and at least one disciplinarian foster mother, Davey, through a series of events of exceeding improbability, comes to live, illegally, with Megan and Tom. His arrival has the effect of bringing the disaffected couple closer together and finally gives meaning to Hardin's few remaining days.
The characters are beset by several interesting, life-and-death problems, and display clear character arcs through which they work their problems out, all in the service of attaining redemption.
The film is always well-acted, with Bacon especially good as the almost catatonic husband.
The reasons for his emotional blockage are never really explored, though they seem to extend back beyond Megan's illness.
Heizer is completely convincing as the angry, mistreated kid who is only looking for a modicum of stability and love in his life. Already a television veteran at the age of 14, Heizer should continue to extend his range and develop his talent.
The film ends with Megan, just before she dies, reciting the overly-familiar lines about raging against the dying of the light from Dylan Thomas's poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. Rails and Ties is the kind of movie in which she then says, 'that's from a poem by Dylan Thomas'.
Gary D. Roach
Marcia Gay Harden