If you have no sense for what great cinematography contributes to a movie, don’t be too hard on yourself—the film industry has done a singularly crappy job of educating anyone. The only time of year 99 percent of moviegoers think at all about cinematography comes during Academy Awards season, when the nominations invariably and lazily go to whoever was behind the camera for the year’s anointed favorites, almost all of which are glossy epics. As a result, most people equate great cinematography with expansive vistas or period settings—in other words, something that would look smashing on a postcard.
There are, in fact, expansive vistas and period settings in director Campbell Scott’s Off the Map, but that’s not the primary reason the work of cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía proves so dazzling. His is the kind of subtly breathtaking work that makes a movie feel like a movie, and not just a camera recording a stage play.
Coincidentally, Ruiz Anchía’s camera is in fact recording a stage play, or at least an adaptation thereof. Writer Joan Ackermann adapts her own theatrical work, framed as the reminiscence of Bo Groden (played as an adult and narrated by Amy Brenneman) from a 30-year distance. She’s reflecting on her 11- going on 12-year-old summer in the early 1970s, living without plumbing, telephone or electricity while being home-schooled in her counterculture parents’ home near Taos, New Mexico.
But young Bo (Valentina de Angelis) has bigger problems than an unconventional lifestyle. Her father Charley (Sam Elliott), a Korean War veteran, has begun suffering through a crippling depression, rendering him incapable of even the fix-it-up salvage work that supplements his government check. That leaves her mother Arlene (Joan Allen) to deal with all the family business, including a visit from IRS auditor William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) to investigate why the Grodens haven’t bothered to file a return for several years.
It’s a low-key character piece, and Scott guides his cast smartly through the tale of a funky makeshift family. Elliott isn’t required to do much more than look haggard and remote, but he does it effectively enough. Allen, often seen as a flintier matriarch, softens up to play Arlene as an earth-mama trying to hold herself and her clan together. And there’s great supporting work from J.K. Simmons as Charley’s laconic best friend and Jim True-Frost as the auditor Gibbs whose entire world is changed by the desert landscape. The central metaphor of the title is perhaps a bit too obvious—people trying to find themselves in a place where it’s hard for the rest of the world to find them—but the narrative still holds some simple pleasure.
The greater pleasures can be found, however, when you stop to take a close look at the way the story is being told visually. There are indeed several striking landscape shots, one a gorgeous image of Gibbs standing intoxicated by the desert drifting slowly into sundown. But frequent David Mamet collaborator Ruiz Anchía works in every possible shade even when his subject is a human face. Taking advantage of the film’s setting in a place where gas lamps and the moon provide the only nighttime illumination, he lights his characters in truly remarkable ways. Elliott’s craggy features often remain largely in shadow; conversations sometimes feel as though they’re exchanges between ghosts. Off the Map is supposed to feel like it’s set in a place with an almost mystical quality, and nearly every shot in Ruiz Anchía’s arsenal heightens that mysticism.
It’s an even more remarkable achievement considering the ways in which the text sometimes seems to be working against that sense of mysticism. Ackermann overburdens her young heroine with precociously quirky character traits—she reads Forbes while lying in the bathtub; she gets free food for the family by writing faux letters of complaint about finding rat parts in Moon Pies—that serve primarily as jarring “isn’t she wonderfully offbeat” punch lines. Yet even with the narration, Off the Map never quite drifts into the territory of trite Wonder Years-esque “my life changed that summer” melodrama. For that, credit Campbell Scott’s sense of pacing, and his savvy choice in cinematographers. Ruiz Anchía helps broaden the definition for what can be the subject of a rapturous moving picture.
OFF THE MAP *** Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, Valentina de Angelis. Rated PG-13