In its first 20 minutes, End of the Line establishes a pleasant small-town feel. It’s set in a little railroad burg in Arkansas, where the livelihood of the locals depends upon the presence of the trains.
Townsfolk hang out at the Iron Horse bar or drop by Rose’s Beautyrama, while every night pals Haney (Wilford Brimley) and Leo (Levon Helm) look forward to a game of cards and a hot helping of Mrs. Haney’s deep-fried salmon patties. As Leo puts it, “She makes ’em taste almost like fish.”
Then the railroad company announces that it’s pulling out of town, a move that effectively signals the disappearance of the main source of income for most of the inhabitants. Only desperate action will do, and Haney and Leo come up with a doozy of a plan: They’ll steal – well, borrow – an engine and ride it all the way up to company headquarters in Chicago. When they get to the city, someone will listen to them.
As it turns out, the president of the company (Bob Balaban, in a funny caricature) gets wind of the journey and decides to twist it into good public relations for himself. He’ll turn the train thieves into backwoods heroes and somehow use them to his advantage.
At this point “End of the Line” turns regrettably cute. The little guy vs. the system stuff is pushed for all it’s worth, and the script by Jay Russell (who also directed) and John Wohlbruck isn’t shy about ladling on the heavy homespun syrup. This, despite the best efforts of Brimley (the cuddly codger of Cocoon and TV’s Our House) and Helm (the member of The Band who played the father in Coal Miner’s Daughter), who make a likable team.
The best moments of the railway odyssey come when these two fellows are chewing the rag about anything and everything that enters their minds, even if that includes drunkenly vowing to kill each other rather than be captured alive. (They’re too sloshed to carry through.)
By the time they make it to Chicago, where Balaban tries to turn them into commercial spokesmen for the company, the film has softened up considerably. It’s as predictable as those prefabricated salmon patties, and just about as flavorful.
There are some interesting faces among the supporting cast: Kevin Bacon as Brimley’s shiftless son-in-law, Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona) as Bacon’s wife, and Mary Steenburgen as Helm’s beautician wife. Steenburgen also produced the movie, and End of the Line is perhaps most acceptable as an act of homage toward her home state, Arkansas.
First published in the Herald, November 13, 1987
I read through some of these ancient reviews and I have to wonder at times, Did I really mean to end the piece like that? Feels like another sentence or two was coming. Or maybe I just wanted to end a review, for the first and (I suspect) only time, with the word “Arkansas.”