Off the Map (2003)

Rated PG-13 Our Content Rating: V-0 ; L-2 ; S/N-4

For the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
“He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the LORD alone did lead him,
and there was no foreign god with him.
Deuteronomy 32:9-12

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:8-12

Off the Map

The Grodens live in northern New Mexico near Taos, their cabin so isolated that, as one of them comments, they are “off the map.” Director Campbell Scott’s film, scripted by Joan Ackermann and based on her play, is also way off the map of the usual commercial pap showing at cinemaplexes. So far the best film that I have seen this year, the sparse events of its simple events take longer than most audiences, used to the quick pace of action films, will be willing to sit through. Like Clint Eastwood, Scott believes that in filmmaking, less is more. He trusts his actors, especially in those long moments of silence in which so much is revealed—and which a lesser filmmaker would feel compelled to cram full of music so that the audience will know what to feel. If you love to watch the development of interesting characters, then this is a film not to be missed.

Narrated by the grown-up Bo Groden (Amy Brenneman), it chronicles the events of the summer of 1974 when she was an eleven year-old anxiously wanting to leave her quiet life and see the bigger, more glamorous world. Referring at times to her parents by their given names, Arlene (Joan Allen) and Charley (Sam Elliott), the precocious Bo (Valentina de Angelis) receives a steady supply of snack foods and candies by writing letters to manufacturers and complaining of finding insect parts in their product. She also writes to a newspaper advice columnist, and is thrilled when her letter is printed. Money is tight at the Grodens, their total income from a V.A. disability check her father receives; and the sale of vegetables from their garden, the handicrafts they make, and the items scrounged from the dump which Charley is able to repair, amount only to $5000 a year—thus Bo decides to apply for a Master Card. She also will soon be demanding that she continue her education at a public school rather than at home. In the meantime she hunts squirrels with her bow and arrow and practices with her rifle, expertly shooting the necks off the old bottles they pick up at the dump. It is during this scene that she longingly recalls how her father had patiently taught her the secrets of using a rifle.

The Grodens live like pioneer homesteaders on their plot of land. Charley is inventive enough to repair anything. Their windmill supplies their water; kerosene their light at night (Bo loves to read almost anything, from old issues of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL picked up at the dump, to her current book on the history of Spain); and most of their food Arlene grows in the garden (which she enjoys hoeing in the nude), the products of which she cans for use in the winter. Whether the Groden parents are left over hippies or forced to live so simply because of Charley’s disability, we are never told.

Surrounded by so much rugged beauty, and able to live on so little, the Grodens would seem to be living in a paradise to be envied by many city dwellers. However, all is not well, because Charlie has sunk into such a depression that he stares vacantly, seemingly in a catatonic state. Arlene and Bo keep talking to him and trying to bring him back to his old self, but nothing seems to work. His best friend George (J.K. Simmons), whom Bo unkindly describes as not being very bright, spends every minute of his time off from his job sitting with Charlie. A man of few words himself, his is a ministry of presence, his deep love and concern for his friend being expressed simply by showing up at the Grodens each day. It will only be much later, after George surprises everyone by marrying a Mexican woman and leaves, that Bo will realize how much she loved and depended on the man she had derided so often.

Reading an article at the town library that depression in some cases is caused by a chemical imbalance, Arlene tries to talk George into impersonating Charlie and seeking drugs from a psychiatrist. George resists at first, but does start seeing one, who turns out to be a woman. He is refused drugs but continues his “treatment,” believing that he is in love with her. Arlene’s quest for drugs is fulfilled in a strange sequence of events when an IRS agent shows up to audit their accounts. The Grodens had not filed a return for seven years out of the mistaken belief that their income was so low that they did not need to do so. The agent, William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), informs them that this is not true.

Gibbs shows up one day on foot, hot and bedraggled by the long hike from his car parked on the distant road. As Bo tells him, he is the first visitor ever to arrive wearing a suit and tie. He is mesmerized when he arrives by the sight of Arlene standing naked in her garden. She in turn is transfixed by the sight of a beautiful coyote stalking a rabbit. From a perch above, Bo watches them all. Shortly after his arrival, Gibbs is bitten by one of the Grodens’ honeybees and is overtaken by a dangerous reaction. Put to bed, he spends the next several days in and out of a fever. This marks the slow beginning of Charley’s emergence from depression. One night he talks with Gibbs, telling him, “I am a damn crying machine.” When he asks Gibbs if he has ever been depressed, Gibbs replies that he has never known a time when he was not depressed, and tells him about his past life.

He remembers returning home from school as a child carrying a model of a pyramid he has made. Opening the door with his back, he backs into the body of his mother, hanging in the entranceway. Ever since he has blamed himself. He studied law, but drifted from job to job, taking the position with the IRS simply because it meant moving out West. He carries with him the burden of guilt that somehow he was responsible for his mother’s death.

Although Charley slips back into his depression, we sense that he will not remain stuck there, especially after Gibbs recovers and stays on, even declaring his love for Arlene. She accepts his declaration calmly and carries on with her chores, accepting Gibbs’ statement that he needed to declare his love out loud for therapeutic reasons. Gibbs discovers the set of watercolor paints that George had brought to Charlie, and discovers an unexpected talent for art. He sketches Arlene and the garden, and after talking with Bo about his native Cape Cod and the vast expanse of sea and the way the sky touches it at the horizon, he begins to paint his vision on a strip of wall paper measuring three feet by forty-one.

The climax of the film is not spectacular, but the turn of the plot is unexpected, filled with a quiet drama that is a joy to behold—one in which Bo, although needing to venture out into the wider world, gains a deeper understanding of the great love and patience of her mother and the equally beautiful landscape which had so shaped all of the family. The New Mexico tourist agents call their state “the land of enchantment,” and anyone who has experienced its vast desert and mountain vistas will agree. The same could be said of Campbell Scott’s film!

For reflection/discussion

1) What do you think is the point of Bo’s description of the phenomenon of the “face of our Lord Jesus” appearing on a tortilla at the Taos Junction Café? Simply to add a touch of humor? To show the gullibility of believers? Or does her mention that after a year the image faded away despite the efforts of its owners to preserve it, suggest a deeper meaning, bearing on her own experiences?

2) How much does Bo seem to appreciate her rustic home? Have you lived in a small town or other place which you very much wanted to escape? How did you feel after you left?

3) What do you think of her practice of scamming manufacturers so that she can acquire free products? The film depicts this as cute and indicative of her inventiveness.

4) How does Arlene deal with her husband and his depression? How does her Hopi heritage influence her? Why, in a country where coyotes are so common and regarded as a threat, is she so affected by the one living nearby? When is the one time that Arlene breaks down and cries? What do you think of the way she deals with the creature’s killer?

5) How do we see Bo also affected by the Hopi strain in her family? That is, what does she do after shooting a squirrel with her bow and arrow?

6) What motivates George? How is he such a cipher at first that Bo regards him so little? And yet what does he give to her and the family? How is his development a parallel to the stories of the others? What do you think Charley means when he wrestles with his friend and pleads, “Don’t let me go, George. Don’t let me go!”?

7) What happens to Gibbs as a result of his stay with the Grodens? How is this well summed up in the sequence in which he stands admiring the mountain scene throughout a whole day? When did you have such an experience—maybe not as extreme, but one which you were reluctant to see come to an end? How could this be regarded as a “kairos” moment, rather than “chronos” ( to use two Biblical concepts of time)?

8) How did you feel in the outdoor scene in which Arlene touches Charley slowly and they finally kiss? Note: did the filmmaker use any music or dialogue to enhance the scene? How is this in keeping with the film as a whole?

9) What do you think of Bo’s birthday gift to her father? Crazy? How does this contribute to his healing? What other “moments of grace” do you see in the film (often small ways in which a person enriches the life of another)?

10) How could the way Arlene relates to her husband and daughter be seen as an example of the “mother side” of God? (See Deuteronomy 32:9-12; Psalm 131:2; Isaiah 66:13; Matthew 23:13)