Off The Map
directed by Campbell Scott
Adapted by Joan Ackermann from her stage play
The new film from director Campbell Scott, with a screenplay adapted from her own stage play by Joan Ackermann, is a meditative, carefully-constructed film with many fine moments and much promise. While it artfully captures a mood and a powerful and compelling sense of place, and succeeds in creating an appealing cast of characters, in the end it somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts.
The story centers around the family of 11 year old Bo Groden (Valentina de Angelis), a home-schooled tom-boy living an isolated life literally 'off the map" in rural New Mexico in the early 1970s. As the story opens, Bo's father Charley (Sam Elliott) has sunk into depression from which neither his earthy, self-reliant wife Arlene (Joan Allen) nor his best friend George (J.K. Simmons) can rouse him.
As Charlie's depression continues and deepens and his family's concerns grow, an erstwhile Internal Revenue Service investigator, William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) arrives at the remote homestead with the assignment of resolving the Grodens' tax liability.
Gibbs arrives stressed and anxious from his three day search for the house, which lies far from marked roads and doesn't appear on his maps, having left his failing car and hiked the last few miles through the desert heat. He walks into a tableau that amazes and inspires him, altering his life. He is stung by a bee and falls into delirium. He becomes a part of the Groden household.
Relationships develop and evolve among the characters. Incidents occur. People and their situations change. But somehow, the story never develops a center of gravity around which the events revolve - there is no strong sense of emotional continuity, no sense of deep and genuine connection between what happens to the characters and their responses.
William's hopeless and unrequited love apparently inspires him to become an artist - but we have no idea why it should have that particular effect on him. Charley's inexplicable despair is just that - inexplicable, with no palpable connection to the events and people around him.
When William finally lets go to his grief - how he has worked through to that point is not quite clear, except that it apparently has something to do with his finding self-expression through painting - Charles simultaneously lets go of his depression - but it seems arbitrary and coincidental - or perhaps contrived - rather than poignant.
Part of the problem may lie in the adaptation from stage to screen. Live theater is a much more visceral experience for an audience. The raw emotion projected by the actors leaves little room for (or interest in) analysis of the continuity and cohesiveness of the plot. In creating the physical setting and much of the situation in their imaginations, a theater audience naturally fills in ellipses that a film - because of the literal nature of its imagery - must explicitly specify.
Some films and filmmakers circumvent this limitation by using the ability of film to create surreal and "magical realist" images to engage the audience's imagination - with varying degrees of success. But a film that sticks to straightforward story-telling, as this one does, must then also accept the fact that audiences will approach it with a critical eye, expecting the sequence of events and emotional transformations to make some sort of narrative sense.
But in fact, there are enormous holes in the plot and they distract and confuse. Characters don't "develop" as much as they suddenly and unaccountably change. The film is book-ended by sequences featuring the adult Bo (Amy Brenneman) , who also supplies some voice-over narration during the body of the film- but no connection is drawn between the wild-child she was and the urban sophisticate she has become. This sort of narrative disconnect is at the heart of why this film, with so much going for it, still doesn't succeed as it ought to.
Chief among the film's strengths are the fine work of its cast. It would be hard to say too much about Joan Allen, who carries the film as its most dynamic and coherent character. Her performance here is graceful and balanced, tinged with the same kind of subtle emotional notes that have made many of the other characters she has created so memorable.
Playing against her established image, of women from the sophisticated, educated (and often repressed) mainstream - from Senators (The Contender) and homemakers (The Ice Storm, Pleasantville) to the wives of famous and powerful men (Nixon, Tucker) and even "action-movie" heroines (The Bourne Supremacy, Face/Off) - Allen creates a character here who has a very different kind of strength, as well as an unself-conscious sensuality that makes some of the film's complex emotional dynamic credible.
She comes close to bringing the disjointed events to ground in the person of the patient, confidant and capable Arlene, and several of her scenes are emotional highpoints in the film. It is a tribute to her abilities that she could find threads in her character that manage to bind the story together as much as she does.
First time actress Valentina de Angelis does a fine job as young Bo. A New York City girl with a modeling career that goes back to when she was five, de Angelis looks remarkably unstudied and natural aiming a bow and arrow or dashing though the chaparral. And her striking looks - which might be out of place with different casting - effectively reflect her mother's beauty, creating a visual connection between her character and Allen's that makes the relationship visually more believable.
Sam Elliott - an icon of Western Machismo - plays the clinically depressed Charley Groden. He doesn't have much to do. In the first half of the film he only speaks twice, a total of about five words. For the most part, he simply sits hunched over, silent and unresponsive to those around him, with tears sometimes rolling down his unshaven cheeks.
When he finally begins to emerge from what seems more like near-catatonia than classic depression he doesn't fare too much better. He speaks enigmatically and telegraphically, but he never talks about his recent experience, its meaning for him, nor its effect on those around him - it's another important dimension of the story that is simply allowed to vanish without examination. Elliott's craggy face and ''strong but silent" attitude are apparently meant to signify something - but he is unable to make clear precisely what.
Jim True-Frost does a credible job with William Gibbs - but it is difficult to reconcile the disparate elements. Initially appearing as a repressed, aimless middle-class drifter who suffers from chronic depression connected with childhood trauma, entering into the Grodens' world somehow (but we never really see how) transforms him into a world-class painter. In a few short months he begins to achieve the recognition (and financial success) that most artists struggle their entire lives without attaining.
In individual scenes - most notably the one where he declares his love - True-Frost invests the character with a touching earnestness matched by a winning humility and a sense of self-discovery, But the authenticity of these scenes is undermined by the failure of the story to connect them in any meaningful way.
J.K. Simmons does a good job as George, the family's loyal friend. The foundation of his connection to Charley is never evoked, but his desertion of the family for a Mexican bride is as unexpected a non-sequitur as any of the other "plot twists." He does provide a foil for Bo, and in individual scenes there is some real resonance, but again, the connections that are established are often simply left hanging.
Director Scott has said that the New Mexico Location was like a "sixth character" in the film, and he and DoP Juan Ruiz Anchia certainly treat it that way. One of the strongest aspects of the film is the sense of place they create. Without resorting to travelogue "beauty shots," and always keeping the location photography within the context of the story, they use the landscape to express both the isolation and the independence of their characters, their insignificance and their importance as witnesses to the life and beauty around them.
The sets are skillfully dressed, comfortable and attractive, but with the funkiness of real, lived-in rooms and spaces. The house itself is perfectly eccentric, with a sense of being hand-made and spontaneously-designed without the gratuitous exaggeration that self-indulgent designers often bring to such projects.
The pace Scott establishes is relaxed and contemplative, suited to the slow passage of time in this place where it is always surprising that people know what day it is, much less what time of day. He has done a good job of immersing the characters in a place. The difficulty lies in the erratic recounting of their own inner lives and their relationships with one another.
This is a failing that he and Ackermann must share. They collaborated very closely on script development but neither the writing nor the direction managed to create a story-line that would make full use of the resources they had brought together.But this is a first effort for Ackermann, and only the second directorial outing for Scott. The interesting, engaging and visually beautiful film they have produced is, if not all it could have been, still something of which they can be proud and, with luck and perseverance, a precursor to even better films yet to come.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.