Freud travels Off the Map


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,

Ron Boothe

3 thoughts on “Freud travels Off the Map

  1. I rented this film about a year ago from the Hollywood Video down the street from where I live. The title caught my eye. I liked the idea of being off of the map for that weekend. When I turned the box over, and read the description of the film, I knew it was the one for me that night.
    As I watched the film from my favorite chair under my favorite blanket in the dark of my apartment, I found my Garden of Eden.
    I was mystified by the realness of Sam Elliot’s performance as a man suffering from depression. His character, Charlie, his wife and daughter, Arlene and Bo, had no idea why he was depressed. As I watched the film, it took me back to a time when I too was living with someone who suffered from depression. I truly felt and understood the loss of Arlene and Bo’s Eden. The most difficult thing for them to both accept was that their strong man had lost his strength. While Charlie was in his depression fog, he didn’t see his families’ struggle to accept their loss.
    I didn’t have the benefit of Ron’s insight to the film and his explanation for Charlie’s depression. I think the unknowing of the reason why was what affected me most when I watched the film for the first time.
    Thank you Tacoma Film Club, for making this one of our April picks. I had a wonderful evening at Winestyles re-watching this film.

  2. Bang on, Mr. Boothe. Many thanks for the Freudian primer, and the wonderfully detailed explication of how these principles apply to OFF THE MAP. What you bring to viewing a film, assessing the human dynamic, is fascinating; and what you bring to the TFC is helpful beyond measure. I had not quite appreciated the complex, and the issues William Gibbs had with his mother. I mean he hardly remembered her. But then, he was robbed of much of his childhood by the boorish silence of his family regarding the actual manner of death of his mother, and he must have felt some resentment toward his older brother for rediculing him as a youngster, and possibly for lying to him as well. All that transference with George, yeah, that was good stuff. I love David’s reference to D. H. Lawrence’s WOMEN IN LOVE, which as a film I always felt should have been titled, MEN IN LOVE; complicated by the fact that Joan Ackerman had lived in New Mexico, and had known a family like this –and D. H. Lawrence had a ranch near where they shot the film. Ah, the synchronicities abound!
    Like so many others in the club, sir, I had not connected the dots as to Charley’s depression, even though it was crystal clear once you pointed it out (As my upcoming review will concur, giving you full credit for the insight). My only gripe about the film was the slightly weak casting of Jim True-Frost as William Gibbs. Ackerman wrote some very difficult dramatic transtions that had to be made, and it requires an actor of consumate skill to really pull those off. Msr. True-Frost is not that actor. I, also, as I mentioned to Sharon at the meeting, kept thinking about Cher doing the part of Arlene. She would have brought something dark and earthy to it, even though like Joan Allen, she was probably too old to play the part of a mother of an 11 year old. It is the best work I have seen J.K. Simmons do; rock solid. I wonder if we will see Valentina de Angelis blossom into a fine actress? Perhaps. I still have not made my mind up about Drew Barrymore. Often she is just too precious for words. She has a successful career, but…. Now Jodie Foster, there is a success story, every which way. On my summer road trip this year in late June, Melva and I will drive through northern New Mexico on our way to Texas to see her mother. I will keep my eyes peeled for the Donner Ranch, or the old D.H. Lawerence place. Sounds like fun.

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