Director Campbell Scott—son of actors George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst—saw an original play in the Berkshires that stuck with him. It was about an isolated family in New Mexico who lived off the land and treated the intrusion of an IRS agent with the same matter-of-factness as any old inquisitive critter. Years later, Scott asked the playwright, Joan Ackerman, to adapt her play for the big screen, and on the commentary track she gushes how happy she is with the final product. Part of the reason is that while New Mexico was a presence in the play, Ackerman rightly calls the location just north of Taos the film's "leading character."
The photography is absolutely stunning, with shots of solitary figures off-center to showcase the expansiveness of the New Mexico Territory. It captures the soul of the land which feeds people like Arlene (Joan Allen), who likes to garden in the nude and can fix a car as good as anyone—even as her 11-year-old daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis), can think of nothing but escaping. "When my Mastercard charge card comes, I'm outa here," she declares, this female and slightly felonious George Bailey. To fill out the application, she needs to show a checking account and social security number, but that's no problem. She simply asks George (J.K. Simmons), Dad's somewhat slow best friend, to share his numbers with her, just out of curiosity. Newcomer de Angelis is wholly believable as the precocious little girl who peruses cruise ship line pamphlets, ties her own fishing flies, shoots squirrels with a homemade bow and arrow, and writes fraudulent complaints to companies, hoping to be sent free products.
You'd think Dad would object to some of her antics, but Charley (Sam Elliott) has problems of his own. He's clinically depressed, and shuffles from frame to frame in a kind of haze. Elliott seems tailor-made for the role, ratcheting down his normally laconic and sad-eyed performance to just the right level where you can believe Charley as a flesh-and-blood character. But it's Allen as Arlene who makes the film work. Like early pioneers, this earth-mother has honed her coping skills to a point even sharper than her daughter's stick-arrows, and she tends to her family with the same gentle care as her flowers.
Dialogue is downplayed in order to imbue these characters with a quiet strength, and to allow us to focus on the land as a living and breathing part of their lives. When an IRS agent comes to them, it's not because their income is suspect. The family gets by on Charley's $320 per month veteran's compensation and income from the sale of flowers. The problem is that they haven't bothered to file for the last seven years. But it doesn't take new IRS agent William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) long to come around to the family's way of thinking. After he falls ill with fever and is tended to by Arlene for a full month, he becomes as much a part of their group as George, while his presence brings about changes in each character's personality . . . including,, of course, his own. The former short-order cook decides, in short order, that this eccentric family has found something special in the middle of beautiful nowhere. In fact, as the narrator, Bo, tells us, civilization and "excitement" for these folks is the Taos Junction Café, and the discovery of a tortilla with the face of Christ on it.
Amy Brenneman plays the adult Bo in this story that goes beyond the traditional coming-of-age drama as seen through the eyes of a child who continues to grow wiser by the day. The land is a catalyst for characters of all chronological ages to "come of age," maturing the way that fruits ripen. As an ensemble, this group works well together, perhaps because, as they reveal in some of the extras, the land actually had an effect on them too. I don't imagine that everyone who sees "Off the Map" will want to drop out of civilization and move to northern New Mexico, but I'm guessing that this film will challenge pre-conceived notions of "paradise" and family.
Video: On the commentary, the director exclaims, "This transfer looks just beautiful," and who am I to argue? Mastered in High Definition at 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture does justice to the majestic reddish-brown cliffs and the sea-green scrubs.
Audio: The soundtrack is equally nice, with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English subtitles. You can hear the subtle sounds of nature in the background, and the silence itself seems to have volume. There isn't much in the way of sound effects or dialogue, even, with Charley not speaking until well into the film. Largely, it's the girl's voice that we hear, as it's through her eyes that we see much of the action.
Extras: There are two short shows which aired on the Sundance Channel: "Anatomy of a Scene" and "Out There Now." Both incorporate a lot of split-screen images to compare various things—including a scene from the stage play and a similar scene from the film. We learn that the cabin they built north of Taos was based on images from two books, "Of Earth and Timbers Made," and "Alternative Shelters," and there are shots of the filming interspersed with talking head remarks and clips from the final product. As shows like these go, they're of average quality.
The commentary with Scott and Ackerman is interesting because the two talk about the film in ways that address the honest reactions of the writer and director. There's the usual smattering of film talk, casting talk, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes in a commentary that's better than average.
Bottom Line: "Off the Map" meanders a bit, and it's going to appeal mostly to people who appreciate quiet, character-driven dramas. But a quietly powerful script, solid performances, and beautiful location filming make this as much of a pleasant surprise for us as the film's self-sufficient family was for the IRS man.