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Photograph by Jerome Prebois

Ranch Dressing: Joan Allen plays an Earth-mom New Mexico rancher in Campbell Scott's 'Off the Map.'

Just Desert

New Mexico is beautiful and so is Joan Allen, and yet 'Off the Map' loses its bearings

By Richard von Busack

IN Sundance Film Festival-style dramas like Off the Map, the splendor of the American Western landscape is there mostly to frame the knitting-up of a raveled American family. Because it's never one family, it's always the nation—and it's always the 1970s when it happens, too. It's the same old quarrel between the responsible, materialistic souls and the great-grandchildren of Walt Whitman. Off the Map is like a Family Ties TV special set in Taos, written by a hungry-for-a-paycheck Sam Shepard.

At a ranch deep in the desert of New Mexico, Charley (Sam Elliott) is dripping tears, clutched in the grip of some unspeakable manly despair for which he will heed no counselor nor seek any medication. During the summer of 1974—the summer of Nixon's resignation, hint, hint—his wife, the resourceful Earth mom named Arlene (Joan Allen), holds down the fort. Meanwhile, she holds off a love-struck suitor, William (Jim True-Frost), who's been staying at the place ever since she nursed him back from a near-fatal case of bee-sting shock. He's mesmerized by the one moment he glimpsed her nude in her garden; at first sight, he's transformed from an IRS auditor to a celebrated artist. This story of "the year I became a woman" is narrated by the precociously smart daughter, a 12-year-old named Bo (Valentina de Angelis), who can't wait to get to the big city.

Under Campbell Scott's direction, not a single gram of sexual tension mars the triangle. To be fair, Charley's despair is well acted by Elliott, particularly when he explodes into manic energy. And there are images to tempt the viewer who has dreamed of dropping out: life lit by kerosene lantern, riding in a pickup truck, scavenging treasures from the dump and rustic moments such as the tomato-juicing of a skunked dog.

At night, entertainment time consists of reading Dana's Two Years Before the Mast aloud under the stars. It's an attractive fantasy, even if the weather we see up in the Sangre de Cristos is not as fine as it could be. New Mexico is a very powerful place, says Arlene. It's true; spend a week there, and you fly back dripping with turquoise and glowing with a commitment to the sacredness of life, a commitment that unfortunately lasts about as long as the average New Year's resolution.

Nevertheless, Off the Map is a Shirley Temple version of an indie film; the celebrated Allen needs all her talent not to look like motherhood on a monument. One could pick a fight with the film because of the way it resolves the argument between the clock-punchers and the free spirits who raise sunflowers naked and are at one with the animals. (And this is probably the first time in the history of the movies that a chicken farmer weeps at the death of a coyote.) In the end, what retrieves Elliott's purloined spirit is consumerism. This fantasy about the charms of off-the-map living ends with Visa ex Machina.


Off the Map (PG-13; 110 min.), directed by Campbell Scott, written by Joan Ackermann, based on her play, photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchia and starring Joan Allen and Sam Elliott, opens Friday at selected theaters.


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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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