A train’s horn moans over a black screen, accompanied by the rhythmic clanking of the cars passing along tracks. The blackness yields to footage of a landscape accompanied by a male voice drawling, “I lived in Mississippi for 12 years.” However, the snow-dusted pine trees on view are far from the warmth most would associate with the southern state. The voice belongs to a young male regaling a young woman about his decision to abruptly leave his job and move to Washington state. He is between places, and the viewer joins him in this middle space.
From its first moments, In Transit — the late documentarian Albert Maysles’s final film, completed with help from Lynn True, Nelson Walker III, David Usui, and Benjamin Wu and released after he died in March 2015 — is fixated on and shaped by lives in transition. Amtrak’s Empire Builder train regularly embarks on three-day jaunts between Chicago and points in the Pacific Northwest, and the film joins passengers on one of these journeys. While a bit of a ticking clock element is introduced with a young, pregnant passenger days away from her due date, no plot contrivances drive the narrative aside from the locomotive reaching its final destination.
Considering that the entirety of the movie takes place in and around one setting, the passengers are by necessity the focal point of the film. We meet people at all stages of their lives discussing all matters of life: a child details how to make friends, parents share their hopes and dreams for their children, drunk young men provide each other relationship advice, and more. Boredom, restlessness, and curiosity color interactions that form bonds crossing boundaries of age, ethnicity, and gender. The confined space also allows for the introduction of recurring characters; the gentleman leaving Mississippi appears throughout and speaks with several other passengers. The film also pays special attention to the people who keep the Empire Builder running, peeking into the kitchen, staff meetings, and customer service interactions of Amtrak staff.
Whether in conversation or directly addressing the camera, individuals are often heard before they are seen, a technique that allows the directors to place great importance on interviewees’ words. In a particularly effective example, a Chinese national discussing nature and her plans for her future children stops short and shoots an anxious, tense grin at the camera when the train heads through a tunnel, casting a black shadow inside of the car. As blackness engulfs her visage, another voice can be heard yelling, “Going into the tunnel! Argh!” in a playful tone. We cut to a young, Montana-born mother (the source of the exclamation) also sitting with her children in the darkness. While each of these shots could have come from separate passages through tunnels, editor True uses this environmental overlap as well as mutually relevant dialogue to link the two scenes, an astute means of establishing that, despite different backgrounds, these two people are still part of the same human tapestry.
With its focus on the examined life, In Transit runs the risk of becoming trite pablum. Some of the train’s passengers come to epiphanies that profoundly shake their concept of self; a dining car conversation between two African-American men — one a young father and the other an elder who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — is particularly touching as the father comes to terms with the childhood abandonment that has soured his adult years. Many of the passengers’ realizations, though, are rife with trite, self-help clichés about “finding” oneself — sentiment that can turn off more cynical viewers with its navel-gazing impracticality.
Just as the eye rolls become more frequent, though, the viewer feels the reassuring hand of a master documentarian on his or her shoulder. A young woman describes a fellow passenger who decided to go on a snowboarding trip because he is unemployed; she describes him as “at a crossroads.” Her conversation partner — a young man unseen until now — intervenes, questioning her conception of the situation. “When you’re able to be ‘at a crossroads,’ your parents are loaded,” he informs her, checking her privilege. This jolt back to reality appears 20 minutes from the end of the film but tinges everything that came before and will come after with an awareness of the melodrama that permeates some passengers’ revelations. By including this moment, Maysles and company engage and acknowledge as many passengers’ perspectives as the runtime allows. The filmmakers are skilled documentarians, giving the viewer the clearest possible portrait of what he or she would encounter riding the Empire Builder.