Off the Map

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/10/05 00:02:31

"An enchanting piece of personal storytelling."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 DEEP FOCUS FILM FESTIVAL: One of my favorite phrases to use as a critic is “deceptively simple.” There’s something rewarding in finding a story that sounds on the surface to be quite uncomplicated, only to discover the hidden depths located beneath the surface. Campbell Scott’s “Off the Map” is one such deceptively simple story.

The film, written by Joan Ackerman (adapted from her play), avoids your typical two-sentence explanation. It’s about a family living in the New Mexico desert, pulling in less than $5,000 a year, living off the land, and being quite successful at it. But their lack of income, it turns out, doesn’t mean they don’t have to file taxes, and soon a man from the IRS is stumbling his way to their secluded world, ready to audit.

Now, you look at that description (two sentences), and chances are you’re thinking of all the places a story like this could go. And the film manages to avoid every single one. Instead of turning into an aw-shucks outsiders-drawn-into-the-world tale, it plays out instead in reverse; it’s the city man who gets sucked into this world of seclusion.

Scott, the actor who also helmed “Big Night” and “Final,” here presents his best work behind the camera to date. This is a story that demands much patience from both the teller and the audience, and Scott keeps a steady hand on the film’s pacing, never rushing anything, yet never allowing the audience to become bored with its dry, tranquil presentation. As he offers us a glimpse into the life of these people who live in the middle of nowhere - no phone, no television, no plumbing, no electricity - he allows the silence of their surroundings to draw us closer. There’s a preciseness at work here, a delicate touch. Once you get in line with the movie’s rhythm, you’re hooked.

Ackerman’s screenplay is the film’s only weakness - and yet it is also its greatest strength. The characters, both in dialogue and in the narration of one character, speak not as if they live in reality, but as if they live on the page. This is the sort of language found in well crafted fiction, elegant, thoughtful, carefully constructed. (The film is told in flashback, as if we’re hearing the reading of a well-penned autobiography.) It’s a double-edged sword: I wanted to fall in love with the poetry of the language, yet I also kept backing off, remembering that it’s a little too stiff, too stilted. I doubted the characters would actually talk this way - yet I’m glad they did, if you follow me.

The preciseness of the language places the story in a slightly fantastic realm, which, when combined with the epic landscapes of New Mexico, lends the film a sense of magic and wonder. This is the sort of film that gets you leaning in, eager to immerse yourself in this other reality.

I have not yet discussed the cast, and that is because I am reluctant to discuss too much of the plot. So I will simply state that the cast includes Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, and J.K. Simmons, all providing performances that are as remarkable as you’d expect. Elliott, in particular, wowed me with his turn as a manic depressive, a role that could have been either over- or underplayed; the veteran actor, whose name on a cast list always makes me smile, here lands perfectly in the middle. What a sharp, smartly developed performance.

Also of note are Jim True-Frost as the IRS man - his transformation from man lost to man found is simply lovely - and newcomer Valentina de Angelis, playing the daughter. De Angelis risks coming off as too cutesy, as her character is designed to be wise beyond her years (she reads “Forbes” to the chickens, she’s studied Latin, she’s applied for her very own credit card, she pours over “The History of Spain” for an evening’s entertainment), and yet she never pushes the character too far into Cute Kid territory.

All involved understand the quietness, the delicacy needed to make this story work. This is a cast and crew that see in this project the poetry in the lives of these characters. Scott, making the daring choice of refusing to spiff up the project with melodramatic conflicts, lets the story take its own time, revealing its secrets in its own special way. If you’re willing to let it, the film will sweep you along. Let it.

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