Certain kinds of place have traditionally had spiritual meanings attached to them, notably deserts. The Jews traveled in the desert and became a community; Jesus went there to pray and to prepare for his ministry; and Muhammad received his commission in a desert cave. These places compel us to make sacrifices, to use things in moderation, and to plan ahead.
It is 1974 and the Groden family lives "off the map" in the desert landscape of Taos, New Mexico. They have stored food for the future and chopped lots of wood for the winter ahead, even through it is summer. Charley (Sam Elliott), the head of the family, is a hard-working individualist who can fix anything, but he is in the midst of a strange depression. He doesn't do much except sit in a chair and cry. This behavior has altered the equilibrium of the household. His patient wife Arlene (Joan Allen) works in her garden where she raises most of the vegetables that they eat. She has convinced George (J. K. Simmons), her husband's best friend, who served with him during the Korean War, to start seeing a psychologist so he can get some drugs to combat Charley's depression.
Bo (Valentina de Angelis), who is twelve years old, acts much more grown-up since she has been schooled at home. When she speaks, it sounds like something from the many books she has read. The family has no television or telephone, and the trip to town is a long drive. Isolated, Bo has created her own imaginative world of a three-ring circus under the moon. But she really longs for the normal world of suburbia where lawns are watered and girls her age join the Girl Scouts.
As part of her family's obsession with thrift, Bo has come with clever ways to get companies to send replacements for their products. She also spends time in the desert hunting squirrels which she kills with her bow and arrow and then skins herself. She doesn't know that her mother has become entranced with a coyote who wanders on their property. Bo doesn't share her ability to see the animal as having a noble beauty.
One day William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), an IRS agent, shows up at the house. They haven't filed a tax return for seven years and thought they didn't need to since they only make $5,000 a year. He sees Arlene standing nude in the garden. Gibbs is mesmerized; she doesn't see him because her gaze is fixed on her coyote friend. Meanwhile, Bo watches both her mother and the stranger from a distance. The energy flow between them all is quite powerful: a moment frozen in time, especially in the tax agent's mind. As he watches, he is stung by a bee. Taken into their home, Gibbs sleeps several days on their couch with a fever. When he awakes, something strange has happened to him. Without being able to explain himself or what has come over him, the newcomer declares that he has fallen in love with Arlene and the place as well.
New Mexico is called "the land of enchantment," and it certainly seems an apt way of describing it in light of the dramatic developments in Off the Map. Actor Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger) made his directorial debut in 2001 with Final and this is his second film. The sun over the desert and the glow it creates inside the ramshackle Groden house is a major character in the story. It is what transforms Gibbs into a painter of landscapes and the images of Arlene which whirl inside his head. This odd man has his demons that have troubled him since childhood: namely his feeling that he had some part in the his mother's suicide when he was a young boy. It is truly touching when Gibbs is able to connect with Charley and share his story. Unable to do much for his friend, George undergoes his own surprising transformation. Constantly trying to find her own way into a different future, Bo manages several of her own tricks that startle both her mother and father.
Off the Map is a very literary drama which Joan Ackerman has adapted from her stage play. The film vividly conveys the mysterious ways in which place and love can transform us before we figure out how or why.