The film Off the Map (2003) has many themes amenable to analysis (see How Ron Watches Movies), including: The debilitating effects of psychological depression; Psycho-social dynamics of a family undergoing a crisis; Counterculture lifestyles in the USA in the 1970s; Symbolism related to Christian and Native American religious teachings; and, Symbolism related to Freudian psychoanalytic theory. In this posting I will restrict my comments to the Freudian themes. For a more comprehensive account of the entire film, see the review by Glenn Buttkus, our commentator of record.
I will start with a short mini-primer regarding two Freudian concepts that we will need to understand before we can begin to apply them to this film: displacement and Oedipus conflict. If you already have a basic understanding of Freud’s theories, you can likely afford to skip the next two paragraphs.
Freud argued that our behavior is influenced by unconscious motives, passions, secrets, and yearnings. We have several psychological defense mechanisms that help protect our consciousness from the stress and anxiety that can arise from these unconscious urges. One defense mechanism is displacement, the redirection of emotional feelings onto some person, animal, or object that is not the true object of these feelings. A typical example would be a husband who is angry at his boss at work, but takes out his anger on his wife and children at home. There are two special forms of displacement that play a large role in this film. The first is sublimation in which an emotion is redirected towards a socially useful purpose such as creation of art. The second is transference in which an emotion is transferred temporarily onto a surrogate person, most typically the psychotherapist in the course of undergoing psychotherapy. For example, a man who is seeing an older male therapist to try to resolve feelings of anger towards his father, might undergo a period in which he feels (displaced) anger towards the therapist. This type of displacement is therapeutic if it allows the client to resolve the ongoing issues and then move on.
Freud argued that a normal adult personality can only be achieved if a child progresses successfully through a series of psychosexual stages of development. There are certain psychological conflicts that must be resolved at each stage before one can move on to the next stage. If the conflicts at a given stage are not resolved properly, the individual’s personality remains fixated, or stuck, in that stage throughout life. The most important Freudian stage for the purposes of understanding this film is called the phallic stage, and the conflict that must be resolved to progress out of this stage is the Oedipus conflict. In normal development, a child enters the phallic stage at about 3 years of age, and stays in that stage until the Oedipus conflict is resolved at about 6 years of age. While in this stage, Freud says that the child unconsciously wants to have sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex. For example, children at this stage will often express, “I want to marry mommy (or daddy) when I grow up.” The conflict that arises at this stage takes somewhat different forms in boys and girls. Boys start to worry that their father will find out that they are in love with his wife, and that he will then punish them by cutting off their penis. This is resolved by repressing the sexual feelings towards the mother and identifying with the father (“my father will now let me keep my penis and be like him”). For girls, there is no fear about losing their penis, since they do not have one. However, Freud asserted that girls have to resolve how to deal with what he called penis envy, and this can be facilitated by identifying with the mother.
Now lets try to apply these Freudian concepts to the film Off the Map. Charlie, the father in the film, has set up a psychological Garden of Eden with his wife, Arlene, and daughter, Bo, that he wants to continue forever. However, Bo is bubbling with energy, and is about to break out of this Garden of Eden, one way or the other! The realization that this is going to happen soon has driven Charlie into a severe depression. (The dialog by Arlene, while she is laying on the ground in front of the outhouse where Charlie has barricaded himself, is the strongest evidence for this assertion. She tells him, “She [Bo] IS GOING to leave, you know”). How is Charlie’s psychological conflict going to be resolved? The short answer is that Charlie is going to have to learn to accept the fact that his daughter needs to grow up and become a normal adult. Freudian theory asserts that he might be able to achieve this via transference if he can find an appropriate “psychotherapist”. The plot provides him with two surrogate “psychotherapists” to undergo this process: his longtime friend, George, and the newcomer on the scene, the IRS agent, William. The symbolic playing out of transference onto George is fairly straightforward (e.g., the wrestling scene), and I will not discuss it further here.
The playing out of transference between Charlie and William is a little more complex, and is bidirectional. William has unresolved issues of his own regarding feelings towards his mother who committed suicide when he was a child. This has lead to a lifelong depression for William. When William arrives on the scene he falls into a coma from a bee sting, and Arlene holds his hand and nurses him back to health. As a result, when William comes out of the coma he has transferred his feelings for his own mother onto Arlene. Watch the dialog carefully in the scene where William first professes his love to Arlene. She responds back to him, “I love you too” in a tone and manner (while she is carrying a battery across the yard) that would be appropriate for a mother to use when responding to a 3 year old child who has just expressed his love for her. The plot now has in place potential psychological mechanisms that can be used to resolve the conflicts for both Charlie and William. William can work on resolving his unresolved feelings towards his own mother by using transference onto the surrogate mother, Arlene. Charlie can try to resolve his unresolved feelings towards his own daughter by using transference onto a surrogate son, William, who is now in the symbolic phallic stage of being in love with Charlie’s wife.
Both conflicts are eventually resolved. The solution for William is to use the transference onto Arlene as a temporary stepping stone along the path to a permanent solution in the form of sublimation (creating works of art). For Charlie, the transference of his feelings about Bo onto William allows him deal with what needs to happen with his relationship with Bo. Charlie learns how to allow William to resolve the Oedipal conflict and pass through the phallic stage. The pivotal scene is where Charlie and William are sitting on the porch. William picks up a telescope (a phallic symbol) and asks Charlie if he wants it. (Symbolically: William wants to know if Charlie wants to “remove his penis”). Charlie responds, “You can keep it” (The “it” being William’s penis). Then Charlie continues “It belonged to my father, he gave it to me” (Symbolically: My father allowed me to keep my penis when I went through the phallic stage, and I am going to do the same for you now so that you can progress through the phallic stage.)
If you watch the film again with this framework in mind, you will see lots and lots of other examples of transference between other characters as well. Bo uses transference onto George to deal with feelings towards her own father; George uses transference onto a “real” psychotherapist to deal with his feelings of loneliness, which allows him to eventually find a wife; etc. etc. I hope this commentary has given you a (perhaps new) perspective with which to think about and appreciate some of the psychological aspects of this very nice film directed by Campbell Scott (one of my favorite Director/Producers) that is in turn based on an excellent screenplay by Joan Ackerman.
I gave this film a rating of 4 out of 5 stars,