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Film Review: Track 29 (1988)

Pastiche is a film genre that, when it works can be immensely satisfying, but when it doesn’t work . . . oh dear. Watching Nic Roeg’s 1988 movie Track 29 is a curious affair alright. When I say pastiche, I think that’s what it is: Twin Peaks meets any Nicolas Cage movie you care to mention. Or maybe it’s a serious attempt to portray the hollowness of the American Dream? Maybe it’s all of these things. Who can tell?

Set in a kind of idealised mid-west and brimful of Americanism from sunny-side up eggs to freeways, rigs and apple-pie sweetness, Dennis Potter’s script is well very Dennis Potter. Those who recall The Singing Detective will know all about Potter’s genius; those who recall Cold Lazarus know that even Potter had his ups and downs. With its theme of regression into childhood, those whose memories stretch as far back as Blue Remembered Hills will know what to expect from this oddity.

On the surface it’s a film about the past encroaching into the present. Roeg’s onetime wife and favourite leading lady Theresa Russell, complete with hyperbolic southern drawl, is a desperate housewife. She’s married to a manchild doctor who rejects her very considerable charms in favour of his impressive model railway set laid out in the loft. Flashback sequences reveal that as a young girl Russell was raped at a fairground.

Sterility and aridity, Roeg infuses this staid marriage twixt southern belle and anorak husband with unbearable emptiness. The sense of ennui is overwhelming; here are two human beings thrown together, but living separate lives from which they are unable to extricate themselves. And then, as if by magic, the freeway delivers a hitch-hiking stranger to the couple’s front door. But is the copper-haired, sallow-skinned stranger a force for good or evil?

So far Track 29 follows a fairly standard format: into a domestic situation arrives a third party. With this being a Nic Roeg film, expect the unexpected. Why, it is not certain, but the role of the stranger is played by Gary Oldman with a curious blend of estuary English and RP. Presumably, Oldman was cast for no other reason than to jar audience expectation with that accent of his which at times brings to mind Sex Pistols’ frontman Johnny Rotten.

Anyway, Oldman claims to be Russell’s long lost son – the fruit of that long ago rape. What transpires is pure Potter as Oldman valiantly attempts to portray an infantilised adult – regressing to spoilt six-year old as a bizarre occasionally oedipal relationship develops between the film’s leads. Meanwhile looking resplendent in skin tight lycra the buxom Sarah Bernhard wafts in and out of the film in a supporting role. Not to be outdone, Miss Russell’s own choice of swimwear is cut to within an inch of her modesty.

The twist is pure Roeg: if this cockney psychopath is a figment of Russell’s imagination, is the neglected pretty belle having a nervous breakdown? Even more trademark Roeg is an astonishing sequence when a locomotive train smashes into Russell’s bedroom. In this movie trainspotting comes to symbolise misunderstanding, death- in-life and goodness knows what else. Ask Freud.

That Robert Mitchum’s Cape Fear makes an appearance on the TV set gives a hint that here is a movie not to be taken literally. Bernhard and Russell play their drawling southern belles with deliberate playfulness even if some may conclude their performances are a mix of bad acting and directing. Track 29 takes chances like that throughout; risky business because the line between pastiche and producing a genuine B-movie of one’s own can clearly be a fine one.

From Walkabout, Don’t Look Now through Bad Timing and Eureka, Nic Roeg’s work stands the test of time. A rarity in the Roeg cannon then, Track 29 is not without a certain curiosity value. It’s a film that never quite gels, is never quite sure of its net effect. Imagine the screening of the final cut – what would I give to be a fly on the wall at such occasions. Well, everybody has an off day. Track 29 is arguably Nic Roeg’s.