There are some movies where all you really need to know is the premise, and you know whether or not you want to watch it. Seldom films for all audiences, examples range from Transformers (giant robots do battle), to The Expendables (action stars get together for more action), to Yes Man (Jim Carrey has to do whatever people ask of him).
End of the Line is a comedy-drama with such a premise. Wilford Brimley steals a train. Either you’re on board for that, or you’re not.
All aboard what’s coming aboard.
I, of course, am definitely on board for the idea of Wilford Brimley stealing a train. Brimley is a capable actor, if not one that usually headlines a film, and train heists are always fun. The idea of Wilford Brimley stealing a train is inherently amusing, and End of the Line does a good job of why a character played by Brimley would wind up doing such a thing. Brimley plays Will Haney, a brakeman working for Southland Shipping in Clifford, Arkansas. Southland is gradually switching over to air freight, and one morning Haney and his co-workers arrive at work to find their shop closed down, with a sign on the gate telling them they are now effectively out of work. The railroad was the lifeblood of the town, and the employees are all worried about what they’re going to do for work. Haney and his friend Leo Pickett (Levon Helm, of the Band) decide to protest the closure, and head to Chicago to talk to Chairman of the Board Thomas Clinton (Henderson Forsythe) to try and convince him to change his mind. They decide that the best way to get there is to take one of the company’s own trains.
Haney and Leo (for some reason Haney is always referred to by his last name, and Leo by his first) are a couple of uncomplicated good-ol’-boys, and Brimley and Helm are perfectly cast in their roles. There’s a quiet sense of humor to the film; never enough to make a person bust up laughing, but a constant low-level awareness of the absurdity of the situation. Unlike a lot of films in the surprisingly-large train theft genre, it fully acknowledges the difficulties in stealing something that runs on a fixed path. Perhaps the funniest bit is the game of chicken that results from Haney and the county sheriff each steadfastly assuming the other one is going to back down.
Betting on the rationality of someone who has already stolen a train is probably not a wise bet.
The film has a lot of well-known character actors in the supporting cast. In Chicago, Clint Howard and Bob Balaban play a couple of Southland executives who see a great PR opportunity in Haney and Leo’s journey. They’re great sleazy characters, and their scenes provide some more of the film’s gentle humor. Mary Steenburgen, who also was executive producer on the film, plays Leo’s wife; Barbara Barrie plays Haney’s, and the two women are contrasted with their degrees of concern over their husbands’ disappearances. And Holly Hunter and Kevin Bacon play Haney’s daughter and her on-again-off-again husband. Most of the DVD covers made for the film today give Bacon secondary or even top billing, due to his current star status, but it’s really a tertiary role at most. Even so, Bacon gives it his all, portraying a character who is in many ways an ass, but gives just enough of a sense of decency that it’s understandable that people want to see him get his act together rather than just kick him to the curb.
The film has a low-budget feel to it. In fact, though it was made for theatres, its production values make it feel a lot like a made-for-TV movie. Not in a bad way, though; it’s just that, like its characters, it’s simple and unassuming. There aren’t any thrilling chase scenes; the train and the movie just casually amble along to their destination. But it’s a fun movie in its own way, a light little comedy-drama that probably isn’t for everyone, but will hold definite appeal to certain audience members.
To determine if you’re one of those audience members, all you have to do is ask yourself one question: Do you want to see Wilford Brimley steal a train?