The metaphors flow almost as freely as the tears in this sentimental weepie that’s the directorial debut of Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison. Feeling like something that might have been made in the 1950s, if not a few decades before, “Rails & Ties” is certainly earnest, but so lugubrious and manipulative that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking it seriously despite its fundamentally tragic subject matter.
At the center of the action is a sad middle-class California suburban couple, Tom and Megan Stark (Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden). As his surname might imply, he’s a taciturn, emotionally reserved railroad engineer, and she’s terminally ill with cancer; they are also childless. While steering a passenger train one morning, Tom is confronted by a car parked on the tracks at a crossing: an ill single mother (Bonnie Root) has driven it there, ostensibly to show her railroad-loving young son Davey (Miles Heizer) the passing train, but actually to take them both from this vale of tears. Tom makes the difficult decision not to use the emergency brake, fearing a derailment, and the train strikes the car, killing the woman; but the boy escapes, blaming Tom for failing to stop in time.
Davey’s immediately placed with a stern foster mother (Margo Martindale) but soon escapes, tracking down Tom to accuse him of murder. But in an implausible twist that comes straight out of the Hallmark Hall of Fame playbook, Megan insists that they secretly take the boy in, and Tom reluctantly agrees, even though it means misleading the kindly child welfare worker (Marin Hinkle) who’s searching for the youngster. Of course, the three console each other, and man and boy bond over Tom’s model train set. But they’ll have to cope with the reality of Megan’s condition—and the legal system.
There’s some good acting on display here, with Bacon, who’s been doing such fine work in recent years when given meaty roles, registering especially strongly as a man who finally breaks through his shell to connect with the child. Harden’s also solid, though she doesn’t entirely resist the inclination the role of a dying woman poses to ham it up, and while Heizer’s amateurishness occasionally shows, he makes a likable tyke (although it must be said that his courteous attitude seems a throwback to an earlier age, and it would be difficult for any youngster to convince us that an adolescent of today would be devoted to trains rather than video games).
But ultimately the stars, as earnestly as they work, can’t conceal the fact that what Micky Levy has wrought is a contrived tearjerker that lurches along on a bed of emotional stereotypes and heavy-handed metaphors. And while Eastwood’s treatment of the material is sincere and generally uncluttered, the lugubrious pacing and a tendency to emphasize the obvious indicate the hand of one who’s still inexperienced in avoiding mawkishness.
Technically “Rails & Ties” is adequate but inelegant. Though shot in widescreen, it’s the sort of movie that would play better on a Sunday evening slot on network TV than in theatres. In any event, it’s likely to pull put out any auditoriums it passes through after a very short stop.