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‘Rails & Ties’ has strong acting, ridiculous plot

It’s hard to get over the implausibility of the premise in Micky Levy’s script, even though the characters themselves acknowledge that they’re in a ridiculous situation.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Alison Eastwood seems to have inherited a couple of directing strengths from her father, Clint: a simplicity of vision and an ability to draw understated, nuanced performances from her actors in “Rails & Ties.”

(Then again, you really can’t go wrong with Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden, co-stars in Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” both of whom are consistently versatile.)

Speaking of consistency, though, Alison Eastwood’s filmmaking debut is unrelentingly somber and maintains a feeling of restrained melancholy even during moments that are meant to be joyous. She doesn’t overload this inherently dramatic tale — you’ve got to give her credit for that. But it’s hard to get over the implausibility of the premise in Micky Levy’s script, even though the characters themselves acknowledge that they’re in a ridiculous situation.

Bacon stars as stoic train engineer Tom Stark, who’s been immersing himself in his work to avoid coping with the fact that his wife, Megan (Harden), is seriously ill and probably will die soon. A breast cancer survivor, she’s just learned that the disease has metastasized into her bones. There isn’t much time left, which forces her to face an array of pent-up resentments and regrets, including never having children; Tom, meanwhile, hides in the garage with his elaborate model train set and further shuts down emotionally.

One day, his train hits a car driven intentionally onto the tracks, killing the woman behind the wheel. (The crash is harrowing as shot by Tom Stern, Clint Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer.) Her 11-year-old son Davey (Miles Heizer), who escaped in time, ends up hunting down the Starks and moving in with them, instantaneously transforming them into the family all three had longed for and never known.


Granted, there are a few steps along the way to this unexpected, unlikely state of harmony, but they don’t exactly ring true, either.

Davey is placed with a foster mother (Margo Martindale, Hilary Swank’s graceless mom in “Million Dollar Baby”) who unbelievably shows zero sympathy for the ordeal the boy has been through and merely wants to impose order on him. Somehow, on his own and apparently with no money, he sneaks out, navigates the sprawl of Los Angeles and makes his way to Union Station, where he finagles Tom’s address out of a co-worker by pretending to be his nephew.

Then he finds his way to Tom’s home and, after initially flailing and blaming him for his mother’s death, settles in politely for a meal and a bath. (And Davey is poised and mature beyond his years, having practically raised himself with no father around and an unstable mother who alternated between popping pills and praying to Jesus. That part is believable.)

Tom finds in Davey a kindred spirit in his train obsession; Megan finds a child on whom she can lavish all those maternal instincts. In a matter of days, Tom’s feeling romantic and sweet again, and Megan feels as if her condition is improving.

The kid is magical!

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But it does seem too easy, despite the constant threat that the police or a social worker will find him and yank him away. A sense of doom tinges every moment this makeshift family enjoys, which Eastwood suggests with copious use of an acoustic-guitar score from her brother, Kyle, and Michael Stevens. Often, silence would have achieved the poignancy she sought more effectively.

Nevertheless, Eastwood has achieved a real find in Heizer, now 13, in his first film role. The script calls for him to be resourceful, frightened, angry and frequently tearful — the kid gets more than his share of hanky moments — opposite far more seasoned co-stars, all of which he handles with aplomb.