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MOVIE REVIEW : Modern Hip Gothic Rides on ‘Track 29'

This is the biggest toy-train set any boy ever had!

--Orson Welles, on first seeing RKO

Nicolas Roeg is a film maker with unnatural talents, unspeakable gifts. And in “Track 29" (Westside Pavilion), they’re on full display.

Roeg hasn’t had a script as witty or well structured as Dennis Potter’s in a while; together, they fill this satiric fantasia on motherhood and malaise with an almost carelessly lavish brilliance. They pack the dialogue, load up the images, let the movie spill all over with eccentric charm, subversive humor and quirky visual riches. Like “Blue Velvet,” it’s a piece of modern American hip Gothic, playfully blood-smeared pop.

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“Track 29" is set in the urban American South, and the title comes from a lyric in Gordon and Warren’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” This old Glenn Miller song is played like an anthem during one of the film’s set pieces: a flamboyant model-train convention, the Trainorama, staged like a blend of political convention, industrial show and TV revival hour.

It fits. For most of the people in this film--including loony Dr. Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd) with his monstrous toy-train set--hobbies are their gods and their politics. But though Roeg and Potter are showing desperately conformist people dulling themselves with liquor, dreams, sex or pop fantasy, they show it with a comic zest and bite. They’re mordant, not morbid. They don’t wallow in these pathologies. They dance over them.

The film makers revel in the nutsy, half-real, half-mad terrain they’ve imagined. Treating fairly edgy material--an alcoholic woman with a philandering husband, fantasizing a perverse relationship with her long-lost son--they’ve worked against the darkness of the subject, turned it into a fun house of the psyche’s dark side.

In the beginning, to the ferocious strains of John Lennon’s “Mother,” Roeg and Potter set up the classic American dichotomy: home life versus the open road. They intercut between shots of a raffish-looking hitchhiker, Martin (Gary Oldman), on a sun-scarred stretch of Southern back road, and the doctor’s wife, Linda (Theresa Russell, Roeg’s wife and fairly constant star).

Linda, almost stuporous with booze and boredom, wanders through an extravagantly tacky, awful house, babbling in sultry, drugged rhythms to her oblivious husband, Dr. Henry. Meanwhile, speeding toward her is Martin, who will later claim to be her abandoned son, conceived in the ‘60s during a rape at a carnival.

What follows is a triangle drama in which fantasy cuckolds reality. Does Martin really exist? Almost nobody but Linda--and perhaps her best friend, Arlanda (Colleen Camp)--really sees him.

In the movie, Martin is a demon lover out of Linda’s mind, a false ‘60s child with a post-Beatles accent, alternately a wily seducer and whining infant. Oldman plays Martin with all the juicy, sly spontaneity of his roles as Sid Vicious or Joe Orton. And though Russell, Lloyd, Camp, Sandra Bernhard and Seymour Cassell are fine as well, it’s Oldman who rams the whole movie off kilter, sends it soaring.

When he plays the Johnson-Morse evergreen “M-O-T-H-E-R” at the piano, dripping with cagey, cornball innuendo, it’s a great moment.

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Potter, in TV plays and movies such as “Pennies From Heaven” and “Dreamchild,” likes to play with the dubious liberation of dream worlds, the ways they can both reveal and destroy their dreamers. Here Martin, the dream boy, is a harbinger of danger.

At first, he seems to be that familiar melodramatic figure, the facile psychopath who gains entrance to a “normal” household to tear it apart, like Sting in the Potter-scripted “Brimstone and Treacle.” But later he becomes a true demon, a raging force out of Linda’s subconscious, her own dream child.

The movie is about the craziness of modern conformity. Everything here is illusory, double-faced. Track 29 is no more real than the Chattanooga Choo Choo--or Martin, or the Henrys’ marriage.

Lloyd’s Dr. Henry is bland and fatherly to Linda; a rationalizing liar to his boss, Dr. Fairmont (Cassell); a voracious lover with his nurse (Bernhard); a feverish prophet at the Trainorama. Like Linda, he’s fleeing into childhood. But his dreams are concrete and warped; Linda’s are buried, insidious, pumping with blood.

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Roeg is a master of startling camera angles and offbeat editing, and though “Track 29" at first seems a fairly linear narrative movie, he quickly cuts it up into his usual cascade of clashing subjective viewpoints.

He whirls the story around, crisscrossing the boundaries between fantasy and reality, realism and satire. And master cinematographer Alex Thomson (“Excalibur”) lights this crazy-house like an icy, garish dream, a doll’s house gone berserk.

In the movie, decor is crucial--the kitschy bedroom with its menagerie of dolls, the baroque gingerbread horrors of the Henry home balanced against the slightly menacing water tower outside. Roeg makes this nightmare pulse with passion. He’s a great erotic director, and here he’s dealing with erotic blocks, fantasies, a psychological dam about to burst.

The key metaphor is Henry’s train set, a model in which travel and adventure are trapped in an attic. It’s the American Dream reduced to toy and idee fixe, with papier-mache mountains and trees. It’s a train going nowhere, existing only for play, and so, the movie suggests, are these people and their lives. Like Sartre’s hellish hotel room, this “Track 29" (MPAA-rated R for sex, language, nudity and violence) seems, until the end, to have No Exit for its lost souls.

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