Off the Map
Directed by Campbell Scott
Off the Map opens with a sky-blue pickup truck rattling down a dirt road “off the map” in Taos County, N.M., which leads to a bohemian homestead. Inside the house are Arlene, a radiant earth mother; Charley, a hunter and carpenter paralyzed by depression; and Bo, their precocious 12-year-old daughter. But before we can meet them, the adult Bo intrudes with a needless flashback voice-over.
The narration tells us nothing that we won’t soon figure out on our own, but it signals how little director Campbell Scott and screenwriter Joan Ackermann trust their own material. Which is too bad, for their characters, adapted from Ackermann’s stage play, are quite appealing.
This frontier family, trying to live off the grid on less than $5,000 a year in 1974, is neither a bunch of right-wing survivalists nor a tribe of hippie romantics. They’re almost regular folks, who support themselves by growing vegetables and flowers, shooting squirrels with a bow and arrow, and fixing items pulled out of the county dump.
George (J.K. Simmons), Charley’s old war buddy, enjoys the house so much that he comes over just to sit around and drink. When William, an IRS agent played by Jim True-Frost (Prez on The Wire), tracks down their house to find out why they haven’t paid taxes in seven years, he’s so taken that he eventually abandons his job and moves in with them.
We in the audience understand the impulse. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with Arlene, played by Joan Allen, and her high, suntanned cheekbones and waist-length red hair? She is the kind of woman who never blushes when a stranger catches her weeding the garden in the nude and who never falters as she keeps the household going through her husband’s midlife crisis and her daughter’s puberty. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with Bo, played by Valentina de Angelis as if Lisa Simpson were a high-desert tomboy? Even Charley (Sam Elliott) has a certain dignity as he lapses into depressive catatonia.
But as much as we enjoy the company of these characters with their endearing flaws, the nervous filmmakers keep crashing the party with distracting narration, heavy-handed symbolism, and implausible plot twists, which seem less like organic story developments than like desperate attempts to stir up some action.
Scott elicits terrific performances from his cast, especially the two women. He is less successful in creating any narrative momentum, however, and his attempts to prod things along only make matters worse. Worst of all, he squanders his biggest asset, the spectacular Taos scenery, by keeping his colors drab, his focus soft, and his shots short.