Subterranean Homesick Blues

Darius McCollum is currently in jail awaiting sentence. | GEMINI PICTURES

Darius McCollum is currently in jail awaiting sentence. | GEMINI PICTURES

Darius McCollum, the man at the center of Adam Irving’s documentary “Off the Rails,” is a complex character. Obsessed with the MTA’s subway and buses, he knows the system better than many actual transit employees. The MTA turned him down for a job when he was 17; had they hired him, the course of his life probably would’ve been much happier. Instead, he spends his days prowling the subway, looking for opportunities to don his MTA uniform and hijack a train or bus. His intent is benign — he’s never hurt anyone — and he’s always delivered passengers to their destination safely. Nevertheless, this compulsion has led to 19 years in jail. Darius is in prison right now, awaiting sentencing on his latest crime.

Darius’ case raises larger issues about mental health and the way prison is so often used to treat it. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which accounts for his high intelligence, his inability to connect with people (while he was once married, his ex-wife Nelly Rodriguez seems to be the only woman with whom he’s had a serious adult relationship), and his tendency to focus narrowly and relentlessly on things. If I can play armchair psychiatrist, he also seems to have a whopping case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. While his obsessions are potentially harmful, they haven’t played out that way so far in more than 30 years of unauthorized subway conducting and bus driving. His crimes have been victimless, yet he’s served more jail time than some killers or rapists.

Documentarian Adam Irving explores the life of New Yorker self-destructively obsessed with the subways

Irving tells Darius’ story mostly through his subject’s own words (in interviews filmed against a dark background, possibly in jail), interviews with lawyers, social workers, and psychiatrists who’ve worked with him, re-enactments, and cuts to “Superman” cartoons. (There’s also a bit of original animation.) The “Superman” references aren’t intended to be taken literally, but to convey Darius’ inner life. Composers Duncan Thum and Steve Gernes’ pulsing electronic score recalls some of the first synthesizer-driven movie soundtracks by Wendy Carlos, Brian Eno, and Tangerine Dream.

Darius McCollum in a mug shot from his younger days. | GEMINI PICTURES

Darius McCollum in a mug shot from his younger days. | GEMINI PICTURES

Director John Crowley is on board to direct a narrative version of Darius’ story, with Julia Roberts set to play his lawyer. I’m not sure who will play Darius, but I’d like to suggest Michael K. Williams, who played Omar on “The Wire,” given Williams’ recent frankness about his struggle with addiction. While that film may turn out well, there’s something absurd about making a Hollywood version of a life story that’s mostly brought torment and misery to the people who’ve participated in it. Movies about con artists tend to romanticize them. “Off the Rails” suggests their short-term pleasure is rooted in real pathology and leads to long-term struggles.

I have to admit, though, that there’s something fascinating about Darius’ story, as much as it may be driven by mental illness, and Crowley isn’t the first person to see fictional potential in it. Irving also interviews the playwright of “Boy Steals Train,” which is based on his life as well. There’s triumph amidst the pathos here, and it’s frustrating to try and figure out how Darius’ life could have been filled with more of those victories.

OFF THE RAILS | Directed by Adam Irving | Gemini Pictures | Opens Nov. 18 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Canal & Hester Sts. |

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