Can a man love a transit system? Off the Rails, documenting the life of serial public transit thief Darius McCollum, will make you believe that he can. The thing is, though, when a man loves a transit system, it will most likely be a love of the unrequited kind.
Now 50 years old, Darius, who has Asperger’s, began illicitly impersonating subway operators as a teenager and never stopped, spending much of his life in jails, prisons, and on parole, wearing an ankle bracelet. Telling a story both tragic and unusual, the film successfully persuades viewers to empathize with a man mocked with glee by the local tabloids. More than that, it may compel viewers to question a society that has punished a nonviolent man on the spectrum with such punitiveness.
The film takes us through some of McCollum’s early, formative episodes of transit theft in detail. These bits, narrated by the impersonator himself, are set to lively animation and depict how he fit into the world of the Metropolitan Transit Authority so naturally that you can understand why he never wanted to leave. The orderly, predictable, well-defined nature of life in the transit system made perfect sense to him in a way that the regular world, often filled with hard-to-read cues and social expectations, never could.
Still, McCollum was not always hopelessly obsessed with transit—he developed his compulsion after a traumatic, catalyzing event, when a fellow student stabbed him at age 12. The stabbing understandably accelerated his symptoms, making him retreat more into a safe, predictable world. He became so withdrawn and anxious in school that he was committed to a psychiatric institution and heavily dosed with Thorazine, never successfully readjusting to civilian life.
One clarification the film offers is how professional and serious McCollum was whenever he took control of subway trains. The tabloids liked to label his acts as maniacal, dangerous joyrides, when in fact he operated the train with model efficiency and professionalism. A major episode occurred at age 15 when he took over the E train for several stops before being discovered, and the MTA considered it a deep stain on its reputation.
Still, the MTA extensively consulted McCollum in the years following September 11, 2001, for his expertise and insight into potential security weaknesses the transit system may have. Offering his encyclopedic, comprehensive knowledge of the subway system while serving prison time, McCollum evokes a G-rated Hannibal Lecter. Moreover, his knowledge of the subways was considered so valuable that he was kept in isolation during his time in prison so that other prisoners, who could potentially have terrorist affiliations, could not extract information from him.
Notably, the film makes the tragic nature of McCollum’s life clear. At one point, he spent three years languishing in the notoriously brutal Rikers Island jail complex because no one knew what to do with his case. At Rikers, while napping in his bed, he had hot oil thrown on him, leaving third-degree burns. The stress and sadness his compulsion caused his mother is also prominently featured, especially in a section where she and her son perform readings of their vast correspondence while he was in prison.
A truthful, empathetic depiction of a genuine New York City eccentric, Off the Rails reveals the depths of an obsession as well as the failings of a system that can’t find a place for someone who is not a threat to others and who wants nothing more than to do what he knows best and loves most.