Sergeant Jack Falen (Dennis Hopper) has been assigned to go back home to the United States from Vietnam so that he can escort the coffin containing his dead army buddy to his town of origin. The deceased was killed in action just as Richard Nixon called an end to the war, but Jack wants him to get his due, and fully expects him to be given a hero's welcome when the coffin reaches his hometown. In the meantime, there's a train journey to be considered and Jack settles down to pass the time in the carriages travelling cross-country...
Tracks was director Henry Jaglom's second film, having been given his start in movies due to his involvement with Easy Rider, much as his star Hopper had been regarding his directorial career. Like A Safe Place, which he had made five years before, there was an experimental tone to this, far from the kind of humorous talkfests that he settled into thereafter, although there were strong hints of what was to come in his style in the conversations that make up much of the film. Jaglom's brother (and sort of mascot) Michael Emil appeared here for his screen debut, and his scenes are very much like the constituents of the likes of Sitting Ducks.
But while there were plenty of distinctive faces popping up here and there, among them the much-underused elsewhere Zack Norman who espouses his belief that eating chicken skin brings you close to the land, and he likes the idea of eating the land, this was really Hopper's film as far as performance went. He carried the story, such as it was, from apparently real events as getting on the train, chatting with Dean Stockwell (Hopper's good friend in life), and romancing Taryn Power (daughter of Tyrone Power taking one of a handful of acting roles) towards the end of the tale where logic has broken down and Jack may be about to go on a gun rampage.
Tonally this was all over the place, but that was by design as Jaglom sought to disorient the audience to better approximate the general mood of America in light of what had happened in the Vietnam War. Tracks was made very close to the event, and was no Platoon or Coming Home as here there was no sense of noble failure, more a disappointed anger that the powers that be had gotten so many people into such a grave error of judgement. Jack thinks that his dead friend's hometown will be proud of what he did - we hear patriotic songs of World War II as ironic counterpoint - but as this progresses we begin to doubt that anybody will actually turn out to greet the coffin, and you will not be surprised to see what happens.
Of course, Tracks was contemplating a period of then-recent history that was still a raw and open wound for the American public, not to mention the Vietnamese who predictably don't get a look in here, so it's apt that such an underground movie should be so hard to get a handle on especially when there were so many mixed feelings around at the time. Jaglom and his team shot the movie guerilla-style, so they never bothered with permits for filming and were frequently thrown off the trains they used, no wonder when the imagery grew ever more uncomfortable as Jack's hallucinations get the better of him, seeing Power's sensitive student gang raped or imagining himself running naked down the corridors of the carriages - or is he imagining those things? Is everything we see the fevered outpourings of his damaged mind, or is at least some of it actually occurring? The answers are hard to fathom, but here was a film that was more to be experienced than understood with crystal clarity.