Tracks (1976)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Taryn Power, Dean Stockwell, Zack Norman, Michael Emil
Extras: Commentary Track

The paranoia and emotional damage of a war veteran should make ideal subject matter for cinematic exploration, and there are many insightful movies to support this. Director Henry Jaglom's "Tracks" (1976) is, to be perfectly honest, not one of them. Filmed some time around 1973-74, Jaglom struggled to find distribution for this independent feature, and it has remained largely obscure ever since. Paramount Home Video has brought it to DVD, but the film has apparently not improved with age.

As U.S. troops are withdrawn from Vietnam in the early 1970s, Sgt. Jack Falen (Dennis Hopper) accompanies the body of a slain soldier on his way home by train. During his trip, Falen interacts with his fellow passengers, trading stories of war, family, and whatever random topic arises. Among the cavalcade of eccentric personalities that he meets are Emile (Michael Emil), who spends his time vigorously playing chess against himself; Gene (Zack Norman), a lover of land who consistently argues with Emile; a middle-aged woman (Barbara Flood) who seeks out physical affection aboard the train; and Mark (Dean Stockwell), an underground radical who is hiding from the government. Falen discovers more promising company, however, in Stephanie (Taryn Power), an angel-faced innocent who is traveling cross-country with her friend Chloe (Topo Swope).

What begins as a jovial, seemingly unscripted character study quickly degenerates into a dark, mind-boggling trip through the psyche of a deeply disturbed man. As hallucinations take over, Falen begins exhibiting bizarre behavior (at one point running stark naked through the train), and both his emotional state and the film swirl uneasily into an abstract distortion. Henry Jaglom cuts unevenly between reality and fiction, placing the viewer uncomfortably in Falen's mindset as he recedes deeper into his fantasies. We are witness to his psychotic ramblings and violent visions, but they are without context and, consequently, absent of meaning. Yes, we understand that he was in combat, but he is given so little background or human identity that we simply cannot relate to him. Falen's insanity really just seems to erupt out of nowhere.

In its attempt to convey the insanity of war and a soldier's desperate response to it, "Tracks" falls somewhere, both thematically and historically, between "MASH" (1970) and "Apocalypse Now" (1979), and it is without question the runt of the litter. Jaglom seems unable to decide whether he wants it to be a character mosaic or a psychological nightmare and instead allows the two ideas to battle it out with both sides losing in the end. The jumble of screwball passengers who talk endlessly of chess and the value of eating chicken with the skin appear to exist in an alternative world, where the reality of the Vietnam War is of no major consequence and the train is the favored means of social gathering. Furthermore, Hopper's increasing lunacy blurs the line between fact and fiction to the point of calling into question the existence of the other characters and rendering their purpose even more elusive.

The film's only saving grace is the work of its actors. Jaglom explains in his audio commentary that he prepared a script for the actors to read, but allowed them to make up their own dialogue once they understood where their characters were going. For this improvisational approach, the entire cast does exceptionally well. Dennis Hopper performs masterfully, showing early signs of the monsters he would become known for later in his career, particularly Frank Booth. Taryn Power (the daughter of classic film star Tyrone Power) is particularly effective, delivering a naturalistic performance that is fresh and believable. Unfortunately, the fine acting only emphasizes how muddled and badly executed the rest of the movie is.

Paramount Home Video has brought the film to DVD in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that looks about as good as we can ever expect it to. Shot on an extremely low budget in natural light on actual moving trains, the film often looks like a home movie taken during a cross-country trip. Colors and lighting fluctuate constantly within a given shot, and the film is very dark throughout. With that in consideration, the transfer is remarkably well preserved. The expected grain is evident, and there are frequent damage marks and flecks, but the image is surprisingly smooth and at times very sharp. Black levels are deep, if grainy, and contrast is excellent. Skin tones tend to be reddish, but this may have to do with the natural lighting.

The audio is presented in its original mono soundtrack, which is just as well since the movie is dialogue-heavy. Voices sound a bit muffled, but adequate nonetheless. Jaglom's frequent use of old World War II songs is done justice, down to the crackling of the vintage recordings. English subtitles are also available.

The only special feature on this disc is a commentary track with Henry Jaglom and Dennis Hopper. I have to say this is one of the worst commentaries I have listened to in a long time. Jaglom and Hopper go for long stretches of time without saying anything at all, and when they do open their mouths it is often to laugh or simply state what is happening or who is on camera. They both admit to not having seen the film in years and attribute their lack of discussion to being too engrossed in the movie to talk. I think that's the point when a moderator is needed.

Unless you are an ardent fan of Dennis Hopper or of Henry Jaglom's unconventional filmmaking, "Tracks" will be of little interest. Its approach to the subject of war and its repercussions is undeveloped and contextually shallow. By giving us nothing substantial to grab hold of, the film prevents us from ever truly caring about the main character or his plight. For the performances alone, this may be worth a rental, but there are much better movies on this subject that make "Tracks" look infantile by comparison.