With film, nothing ever lives or dies on the page. What may read as hopelessly hokey can be made moving by the camera, assuming that the right person stands behind it. Few directors have the gift for spinning gold out of straw as well as Clint Eastwood, who's made some terrific films from stories that might have induced groans form other directors. (Try imagining anyone else rescuing The Bridges Of Madison County.) Sadly, Rails & Ties, the directorial debut of Eastwood's daughter Alison, suggests that such skills are learned, not inherited.
Working from a script by Mickey Levy, Eastwood has been given the stuff of a hundred TV movie weepers. Kevin Bacon plays a train engineer who throws himself into his work to avoid dealing with wife Mary Beth Hurt's imminent death from cancer. How do we know this is what he's doing? His friends and co-workers tell him it's what he's doing. Further down the line, a train-obsessed shaggy boy (not-so-promising newcomer Miles Heizer) stays home from school to deal with his mentally ill mom, who then attempts to kill them both by driving in front of Bacon's train. Heizer escapes death, then skips out of his foster home to track Bacon down, intending to take him to task for his mom's death. Instead, his hate melts and he quickly takes to the job of healing his unlikely guardians' marriage (in time, of course, for Hurt's death.)
Again, there's a chance that a good film might have been salvaged from these questionable ingredients, but Eastwood opts for the tried-and-true approach of tearjerkers past. She's not helped by performances from Harden and Bacon that never click into place. Bacon in particular is so ungiving here that it's never clear if he's grieving for his wife's plight or preparing to track the cancer down for some vigilante-style justice. That points to the biggest problem with Eastwood's film: Nobody feels anything they're not explicitly told to feel. Not even the audience.