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article imageReview: 'Off the Rails' shows justice failing a man with Aspergers Special

By Michael Thomas     May 7, 2016 in Entertainment
Darius McCollum, a man with Aspergers, has spent more than 20 years in jail for impersonating transit officers literally dozens of times. And he knows he'll do it again.
Off the Rails is not only the story of the endlessly fascinating McCollum (famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page), but also how the American justice system fails to help people like him.
McCollum is a very forthcoming subject as he fully explains his passion for trains and buses and recounts the moments in his life that led him to his infamy — impersonating public transit officers and operating vehicles. Though these are crimes, they have always been victimless; he has never injured anyone or even put anyone in harm's way. He runs the routes as any actual employee would (even better than some would, according to one interview in the film).
Still, McCollum spends more than half of his adult life in jail as a poster boy for recidivism. He rarely spends more than a few months between stints in jail because he can't help himself. Those with Aspergers are usually highly intelligent, but less sociable and prone to become obsessed with one thing. For McCollum, it's trains, and they're like a siren song to him.
His love of trains has deep roots, and his recollection of spending time on the subways with actual employees as a child is nothing short of astonishing. He is first arrested at 15 and jail has been a revolving door since then. As lawyers, psychologists and social workers explain, the courts are not able to help a man like McCollum. Locking him up clearly doesn't help, and if he were remanded to a psychiatric ward, chances are he would die there. The MTA, which run's New York City's transit system, has no interest in hiring him.
The story of McCollum's life and his situation is a complex one, and Irving uses a number of tools to bring the storytelling to life, from recreations to animation (it will be really hard to shake off the image of Superman with an ankle bracelet). McCollum is warm and funny as a subject, even Shakespearean, as another interviewee says later on — he has a tragic flaw that he simply cannot overcome.
Just as things start to look up for him towards the end, things take a turn for the worse — but that only proves Irving's point even more. There needs to be a better solution for people like McCollum.
See the final screening of Off the Rails on May 8 at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto. All of Digital Journal's Hot Docs 2016 coverage is here.
More about off the rails, darius mccollum, adam irving, Aspergers
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