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Off the Map

Scott's Quiet Drama Struggles to Find Footing in Desert Sand

Campbell Scott has always been attracted to off-beat, character-driven dramas, the kind that fly far beneath the Hollywood radar until some indie filmmaker snaps them up and takes a chance. Sometimes, the gamble pays off: Scott's directorial debut, Big Night, a tale of two Italian restaurateurs struggling under the weight of their own ambition, had a sharp ear for dialogue and a true sense of compassion for its floundering heroes. His third feature, Off the Map, shares those qualities but, unlike Big Night, it never establishes any kind of rhythm. Joan Ackermann's plodding screenplay gives its maverick characters plenty to say, but not a whole lot to do.

Then again, what's there to do when you're living in the middle of the New Mexico desert, effectively removed from society? Charley (Sam Elliott) slips into severe depression, weeping his dreary days away, while Arlene (Joan Allen) enjoys gardening in the nude. Their ultra-precocious 11-year-old daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis), decides to apply for a credit card -- not exactly a high-risk proposition, since there aren't many strip malls in coyote country. But the family isn't isolated enough that it hasn't escaped the attention of the IRS, and when an agent arrives to inquire about Charley's curious lack of income-tax returns, things look to get interesting.

The agent, William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), is hardly the type to focus on the bottom line. Rather than scrutinize the family's finances, he identifies with their quiet desperation and, after awkwardly declaring his love for Arlene, opts to abandon his career with the government and join them in the desert as a born-again artist. It's a quaint turn of events that seems, on some level, to invigorate Charley and Arlene, but the story meanders, crawling toward a conclusion that resolves little, if anything.

And yet Off the Map is sprinkled with quick-witted humor and dialogue that, at times, can be profoundly moving. Elliott infuses his character with an underlying dark humor, a deft touch given Charley's maudlin sensibilities, and Allen hits all the right notes as a hard-boiled housewife determined to remain calm in the midst of an emotional storm. But the movie, like its characters, seems oddly disjointed, grounded by malaise and unable to bounce back.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars