' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...End of the Line

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Some Drivel On...End of the Line

“End of the Line” (1987) begins by juxtaposing plaintive monochrome archival images of railroad workers with suits in some corporate boardroom who, based on their raised hands and lowered hands, are taking some kind of vote, one that proves to be about a fictional railroad company called Southland about to be phased out for airline freight. This was the late 80s, after all, in the midst of a Presidential Administration that famously went to war with railroad unions and this prologue seems to portend a righteous fury. So does the poster. Wilford Brimley and Levon Helm armed with guns aboard a locomotive that the blurb positions directly above their heads denotes they have hijacked. These guys, one reckons, must be pissed. The movie director Jay Russell makes, however, strains away most of that anger in search of a more Capra-esque tone, a wistful fable about finding the end of the rainbow at the end of the line, which might have worked better if “End of the Line” did not pull the wool over its own eyes.

Set in the fictional small town of Clifford, Arkansas, “End of the Line” was shot on location throughout the Razorback State and with cooperation of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. It looks it too, the production both inside and outside coming across suitably lived in. Russell, though, seems more concerned with shoehorning in Coca-Cola products, cans and vending machines, then he does evoking the sort of life that aging, longtime Southland employees Will Haney (Brimley) and Leo Pickett (Levon Helm) live along this railway day after day. Mostly such an existence is just assumed. And though Russell builds up a convincing community around these two men with some formidable actors, Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen as Leo’s wife and a young Holly Hunter and Kevin Bacon as, respectively, Will’s daughter and harebrained, hot-tempered son-in-law, the movie lets them all fall away once the train gets hijacked, setting off on its railway to nowhere.

Will and Leo intend to ride the rails north to Chicago where Southland is headquartered to demand the chairman of the board (Henderson Forsythe) return their jobs. It is not a well thought out plan and the movie does not really pretend it isn’t. In fact, even as the law gives pursuit, their journey is deliberately stripped of the seemingly inherent drama as Russell even turns a scene of the locomotive smashing through a cop car blocking the tracks into a comic set piece rather than a thrilling one. The scenes are a little lengthy and wandering; at one point Helm just sort of seems to improvise a monologue for the camera. Still, it can’t help but devolve into some amber waves of grain applesauce with Leo even briefly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s that kind of movie. And when they arrive in Chicago, where the Southland President (Bob Balaban) has sought to get ahead of the story by brokering something like a truce with the hijackers by exploiting them for purely commercial purposes, what suggests scathing anti-business satire instead gives way to cracker-barrel shenanigans as Will and Leo faux-kidnap the chairman of the board instead.

Though Brimley is the first-billed star, he somehow manages to recede before our very eyes as the film progresses despite being in most of the scenes. Indeed, in a Chicago-set scene, as Will and Leo are made to film a Southland commercial, Brimley communicates his distaste for the entire stunt by hardly having his character react. Brimley is not only conveying an inherent instinct that Southland is trying to use and abuse Will and Leo but that here is no pot of gold at the end of the line. In a scene before setting off for Chicago, on the porch with his wife in the middle of the night, just the way Brimley has his character stare off into the distance manages to suggest both the futility of their quest and that if he failed to take the quest in the first place that he would not be able to live with himself. This is a grim recognition of reality that “End of the Line” only tacitly acknowledges, concocting a conclusion where it both gives it characters what they want and acknowledges what they get is all just a fantasy. I feel like if Wilford Brimley had come across the movie one night on cable television, he would have scoffed by chortling and changed the channel.

No comments: