Off the Map

(2005) *** Pg-13
111 min. Holedigger Studios. Director: Campbell Scott. Cast: Joan Allen, J. K. Simmons, Sam Elliott, Valentina de Angelis, Amy Brenneman.

The Joan Allen Renaissance continues in Campbell Scott's Off the Map. Allen, who's poised to accept the Peter J. Owens Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival, recently swayed Slate critic David Edelstein, who remarked, in his review of the just-opened The Upside of Anger, "I've always found Allen too cautious, too sane, maybe too nice to be thrilling in the same way—until now." Though she may learn to cut loose and lash out in The Upside of Anger, Allen hardly seems relaxed.

To my mind, Allen has been typecast as The Tightly Wound Woman: she was Pat Nixon (Nixon), Elizabeth Proctor (The Crucible), and beleaguered Vice-Presidential candidate Laine Hanson (The Contender), and she played stressed out or plasticized mothers in The Ice Storm, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Pleasantville. So my critical surprise was reserved for Off the Map, in which Allen plays an Earth(y) Mother who, despite every reason to freak out, gracefully takes life as it comes and, literally, lets it all hang out in remote, high-desert New Mexico.

Arlene Groden (Allen) has a handful in her keenly intelligent eleven-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis, a real find) and clinically depressed husband Charley (Sam Elliott). There's no obvious reason for Charley's depression, which may be a chemical imbalance, but the family (along with a family friend played winningly by character actor J.K. Simmons) stumbles through it determinedly. The household balance is tipped by the arrival of William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), an IRS agent charged with auditing the Grodens. Gibbs finds himself a part of the misfit family in ways no one may fully understand for years to come.

Allen is matched, beat for beat, by de Angelis and Elliott, whose sun-baked, wrinkled face sweats lost-soul despair from every pore (gird yourself for the devastating moment when the almost imperceptibly trembing Elliott sheds a single tear). Any one of these actors could fairly earn Oscar recognition, though their story—adapted by Joan Ackermann from her own play—fails to cohere. In plot terms, I suppose it's understated, despite a couple of wacky twists, but the non-sequitur advancement of the story begs for some clear statements. At times, the story's nonlocal ambiguity is a strength, but some of True-Frost's scenes may have been hastily deleted in favor of the others; his personal transformation just doesn't hold water.

Scott (Big Night) and DP Juan Ruiz Anchía (Glengarry Glen Ross) lend close-up intimacy for the theatrical dialogue, but the story comes to life at least as much in the stiking photography of the local landscape, which sets the stage for lives of sun-draped isolation. "New Mexico is a very powerful place," says Arlene, and the Land of Enchantment lives up to its name in this unusual and surprisingly affecting comedy-drama.

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