Backtrack feels like one of the weird indie comedy-crime-dramas that came out in the wake of Pulp Fiction‘s success. It’s got quirky gangsters, strange dialogue, and an odd story. It also predates Pulp Fiction by at least four years, and is a significantly less satisfying, if no less personal, viewing experience.
Anne Benton (Jodie Foster) is an artist who works in L.E.D. signs, so her main art is sloganeering. She’s getting prepared for a major showing of her work when a chance car accident leads to her being eyewitness in a mob killing. She goes to the cops, then gangsters invade her home murder her boyfriend (Charlie Sheen.) She doesn’t trust the police to protect her, so she runs off on her own.
The gangsters hire Milo (Dennis Hopper) to track her down, and he takes his work seriously. He gets as deep into her life as is possible. He rifles through her possessions. He purchases some of her art. It’s through this research that he locates her… but when he does, he’s not sure he wants to kill her. Milo has become connected to Anne, so when she escapes and he captures her again, it’s because he’s fallen in love.
Anne’s not so keen on this, but after some understandable squabbles she becomes accustomed to the idea. The two connect, and work to keep each other safe from the cops and the gangsters alike.
It’s not a very plausible love story, but it’s not a bad basis for a film. There are all kinds of veins to be mined from this source material. Gangster thrills, dark psychological explorations, ironic humor. Backtrack tries pell mall for them all, without regard for human life.
Why Milo falls in love with Anne isn’t explored. He finds some boudoir pictures of her, and I guess that’s supposed to be enough. When Anne eventually reciprocates the love it’s completely baffling. Jodie Foster plays her as a Jodie Foster type – intelligent and fiercely independent, a woman interested in solving her problems herself. Milo is a foot-in-mouth buffoon whose overtures are clumsy. He clearly doesn’t know how to treat Anne, who should be escaping at every opportunity. But she doesn’t. And it’s not clear why.
What makes Backtrack interesting is that it seems little expense was spared to allow Dennis Hopper to make this fever dream of a movie. It looks good and was filmed on location in several colorful New Mexico spots. The cast is almost bizarrely excellent. Fred Ward is the federal cop out to get the gangsters. Joe Pesci, John Turturro and Tony Sirico (Paulie from The Sopranos) are the gangsters, and their boss is Vincent Price(!) in one of his last on-screen appearances. Dean Stockwell gives a particularly good performance as the no-nonsense mafia lawyer.
But Dennis Hopper uses the opportunity to be indulgent, in silly, interesting, or creepy ways. His “quirky” hitman is a weirdly self-conscious performance, and oversaddled with oddities. For some reason, he regularly plays the saxophone. He can’t properly play it, and it sounds like something’s dying when he tries. But that’s just his character, man. Hopper has also set the movie in various places he’d owned or had lived in in New Mexico: an old theater or a cabin in the desert. That, and the filming of local Indian rituals adds an interesting texture to the film. It does not particularly advance the story.
His obvious infatuation with Jodie Foster is less endearing. She’s often in various states of undress, or in flimsy costume. There’s a love scene where the extremely specific focus on her body while she’s putting on a garter belt has a leering quality. And an uncharacteristic (for the actress) nude shower scene seems particularly gratuitous. If Wikipedia can be believed, after the film Jodie Foster warned other actresses (specifically, Meryl Streep) off working with Hopper in the future.
Hopper’s troubles didn’t end with the actress. After he’d delivered Backtrack to the studio (some say in a three-hour version, but there’s little evidence of that) it was edited, with sections reshot and the music replaced, completely without Hopper’s involvement. He was livid and sued Vestron, the production company, which almost immediately went bankrupt. He didn’t get to have his edit released, but he did successfully get his name taken off the picture, which was released as Catchfire directed by Alan Smithee.
A few years later, Showtime acquired the TV rights to the movie and offered Hopper funds to re-edit it to his satisfaction. Both versions are available on this Blu-ray. The theatrical edition is less weird but also less coherent. Backtrack isn’t a good film; what it has going for it are its quirks, oddities and personality. Drain it of that and it’s just a boring film with glimmers of interest.
The director’s cut is brimming with personality. It’s still not a particularly good story. Some plot lines seem to barely exist. Fred Ward never seems to know what’s going on and has been given the worst hair I can remember seeing on a major actor in a film that’s not meant to be funny. There’s a throughline about D.H. Lawrence that never sticks. Some of the scenes seem to be edited with a Cuisinart. But it does not manage to be boring. It is a precursor to the post-Pulp Fiction ’90s movies where the personality of the filmmaker was almost more important than the actual story. We may have learned eventually that very few filmmakers have a personality as interesting as Quentin Tarantino, and so they needed less license. Backtrack feels like Dennis Hopper laid bare. It’s not always pretty, but it’s there.
Backtrack has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The Blu-ray contains both the theatrical (100 min) and the director’s cut (116 min) of the film. Extras on disc include a commentary by Alex Cox and his wife Tod Davies, who worked on the script, and a theatrical trailer.