Right out of the gate when you hear John Lennon’s “Mother” jangling on screen, and Gary Oldman screams, “MOMMY!” at the top of his lungs at the opening credits, you know some serious Oedipal nonsense is about to go down. And Nicolas Roeg’s (Don’t Look Now) 1988 film Track 29, now out on DVD, certainly delivers on that front. A surreal take on small town boredom, family, marriage, reality, sanity, and model trains, Track 29 is a strange, occasionally hilarious, psychological exploration of bizarre fetishism and the deep scars left by trauma.
Linda (Theresa Russell, Wild Things) is a North Carolina housewife. Married to a doctor, Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd), she is bored with her sexless existence, and desperately wants a baby. For all intents and purposes Linda is a child herself. She throws tantrums, wears braces, collects creepy dolls in lieu of real offspring, and uses the “talking like a little girl” approach to try to get laid. Henry, however, won’t touch her. He’s more interested in his intricate model trains than her sexual appetites—he does, however, indulge his own strange appetites with the equally odd Nurse Stein (Sandra Bernhard). Linda and Henry’s entire house is set up with elaborate, computer controlled tracks and scale models of towns, mountains, and all the accoutrements and accessories.
Their seemingly perfect suburban life masks deep-rooted issues and strange, sinister obsessions. Linda is a troubled daydreamer who drinks early and often to cope, and Henry lives in a fantasy world of his own. When pouting new-wave hitchhiker, Martin (Gary Oldman), shows up, claiming to be the son a teenage Linda gave up for adoption, it’s too much. Her already fragile mind, beset by guilt and trauma, begins to fragment and fracture, and she acts out in new ways, flailing against the rigid confines of her daily life.
Oldman plays Martin with an exuberant weirdness that would be over the top were it not for the already plenty melodramatic state of Track 29. The film borders on absurd—Martin may be real, but then again, he may be a figment of Linda’s imagination, a defense mechanism developed to give purchase to her darkest inner thoughts and desires. Lloyd is in his Back to the Future era maniacal prime, and his Henry is like a James Brown rock god in the model train community, preaching the gospel with fire and brimstone, full of his own delusions and perversions. Let’s just say he gets spanked a lot.
Roeg sets the stage with a deft touch. The real life town is eerily similar to Henry’s models, and shots often fade from one to the other. There’s even a violent train crash, staged entirely in miniature, that is shockingly effective. Linda adorns her house with multiple black-velvet paintings of Doberman Pinchers, dismembered dolls litter the bedroom. As the film progresses, Martin becomes more and more infantile, and more sexual, until he and Linda are fully embroiled in a jumbled mother/lover, delusion/reality fiasco, all of which may or may not be real. You can’t help but be reminded of Drop Dead Fred, albeit with a baleful air of menace and twisted eroticism.
Track 29 is surrealist and absurd, coming across as a tongue in cheek soap opera where the idea of parallel dimensions is introduced early on right along side a batch of Freudian psychology. As messy as it is at times, the film is also compulsively watchable, and that’s impressive, especially as the characters are all thoroughly dislikable. Moments will leave you shaking your head, like Henry’s illicit S&M themed relationship with Nurse Stein, and the spastic outbursts of one of his geriatric patients (Vance Colvie Jr., who was in the Weird Al Yankovic vehicle U.H.F., and also played Bozo the Clown for a time in the late ‘50s).
It’s really too bad that the DVD of Track 29 comes with zero in the way of bonus features. I would love to hear what the people involved or outside film scholars have to say about it. The abrasiveness of the story is obviously intentional, designed as an indictment of apparently idyllic small town life. Digging through all of the layers and heavy metaphors is not always a satisfying endeavor. There’s a lot in Track 29 that’s up for open interpretation, multiple ways to read everything, and while it isn’t always on target, it’s interesting enough to give a watch.