Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: Train On The Brain

By Mike Everleth ⋅ May 29, 2008

DVD cover with a drawing of a woman sleeping on a train

“A hobo is the elite of society’s basement,” New York Slim, Hobo King.

In a lot of ways, one can really understand the lifestyle choice of the American hobo even if that’s something one would never necessarily choose for oneself. The idea of criss-crossing this wide beautiful country with the wind whipping through your hair and not having a care about where you’re going to end up definitely has a romantic notion about it. However, while trying to glamorize this carefree life, documentarian Alison Murray — who rode the rails herself for several months for the film — really ends up de-glamorizing it.

Murray casts herself as the main character in her documentary and does a good job with the role. It’s fun to see a wide-eyed newcomer trying to ingratiate herself into the lifestyle. We share in her enthusiasm during the fun parts, e.g. successfully stealing into train yards, and witness first hand the bad parts, e.g. getting hassled by cops while panhandling in town. If one were thinking about becoming a hobo, this film wouldn’t be half-bad as a primer on the do’s and don’ts of train-hopping.

But, on the flip side, choosing this structural route also has the unfortunate side-effect of making Murray seem like the Keanu Reeves character in My Own Private Idaho: the upper-crusty who’s just slumming with the gutter punks. At least Murray doesn’t turn out to have such a major case of turning-his-back assholism as Reeves has at the end of Gus Van Sant’s film. Murray comes across as being extremely nice, but she can’t shake off that aura that she’s one of “us” not “them.” Unlike the traveling companions she meets on the way, she always ultimately has a place to go, chiefly an editing bay to edit this documentary.

The real star of the film is Wendy Schale. Murray begins her odyssey with a male friend and part-time hobo, Todd, but she quickly runs into Wendy who is riding the rails with a couple other folks. People drift in and out of the film, but as soon as Wendy appears, she’s there until the end of the line.

Wendy is an intriguing and mysterious character. In fact, I don’t think we learn anything about her or her past over the course of the journey. She comes across as a very carefree person, but in a very down-to-Earth way, not in a flighty, irritating way — as say the bubbly cheerleader Firecracker. We never learn particularly why Wendy became a hobo, other than she just enjoys being one. She comes across as being wrapped together really well. She doesn’t have any of the hangups you would think a woman who has hit the road would have: no abusive men, no drug problem, etc. She’s almost a conundrum. I kept waiting for the “big revelation” of why she’s on the road, mainly because I’ve been conditioned by who knows what to expect that from a hobo.

For example, Lindsay has a story. When Schale and Murray meet the teenage Lindsay, she’s run away from her father, whom she doesn’t hate, but she hates “what he does.” (Her phrase.) Again, we never learn if the “what he does” is abusive in nature, but that’s all I could infer. Lindsay talks big about being on the open road and being outdoors as her natural condition. She talks in big, sweeping romantic gestures about the hobo life. Then, when she meets up with the creepy Travis, Lindsay quickly turns her back on the road and runs back home to patch things up with her dad.

Wendy doesn’t have to talk about how much she loves living on trains. You just see it in her face, whether she’s speaking or not. She has no grandiose gestures or pontifications. Wendy just is and you see in her that she’s the romantic dream Murray set out to become — but only for one summer.

While Wendy seems like she has it easy being Wendy, to me it didn’t seem that easy, which is why I think the film ultimately de-glamorizes the idea of hobo-ing. First there’s the very real threat of getting thrown in jail if caught breaking into a train yard. Then there’s the extremely real threat of cops beating the snot out of you just for looking like a dirty son-of-bitch. Some police officers batter Murray, Schale and several of their friends bloody just for camping out under a bridge and not leaving.

Also, while riding a train allows one to be outdoors and you can see untrammeled vistas passing by right at arms reach, hanging out illegally on a train is a very dirty business, like literally. A coal car isn’t the cleanest place to live, but at least it’s airy. Being stuck in a boxcar on a 120 degree day? That seems even more unpleasant. Or how about riding a train through a six-day thunderstorm with nothing but a sleeping bag to cover you up? Ugh. I mean, just ugh.

Despite the unpleasant aspects, the film still gives a great sense of what drives certain people to become hobos even if there’s not a specific catalyst for them to take that track with their lives. Riding the rails still comes across as being a vaguely romantic life and might even seem like fun to do. But for a summer like Murray did it? No. Maybe in the fall. For a week. And the forecast didn’t call for rain in the contiguous 48 states.

Watch the Train on the Brain movie trailer: