The Astronaut Farmer
2007, PG, 104 min. Directed by Michael Polish. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, Max Thieriot, J.K. Simmons, Jon Gries, Mark Polish, Sal Lopez, Bruce Willis, Jay Leno.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 23, 2007
At first glance, it might seem as though the twin filmmaking brothers Michael and Mark Polish (both write, while Michael directs and Mark acts) have scuttled their inclination toward oddball delights as seen in their previous films, Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot, and Northfork. True, there are only upright Americans in The Astronaut Farmer and none of the conjoined twins, professional karaoke singers, or wandering angels here that populated their earlier work. Yet, even though the Polishes’ purview has downshifted from damaged exotics to grassroots individuals, their perspective remains refreshingly skewed toward the unusual and uncommon. The Astronaut Farmer could almost be a relic from the golden age of Hollywood, an inspirational drama about staying true to one’s hopes and ideals no matter the social, economic, or emotional cost. “If we don’t have our dreams, we have nothing,” goes the story’s underlying refrain – a mantra that might sound like pure cheese were it not delivered with such note-perfect gravity by Thornton, who stars as Charlie Farmer. A former astronaut, Charlie quit NASA’s program when tragedy struck on his family’s farm back in Texas (New Mexico filled in for Texas during the shoot). However, having always wanted to go into space, Charlie has taken his can-do spirit and built a rocket ship in an empty grain silo on his property. With his 15-year-old son, Shepherd (Theriot), as his one-man ground-control operation, Charlie eventually blasts off, much to the government’s chagrin. The feds don’t seem to want anyone with a modified John Deere and contraband rocket fuel to steal their thunder. Plus, the anxieties dredged up by our modern age of terrorism lend an extra edge of suspicion and confrontation to the government’s interference in Charlie’s affairs. Although The Astronaut Farmer feels something like a throwback to a gentler time, what makes the film work is its utter sincerity and perfect command of the overall tone. Madsen, as Charlie’s wife, Audie, is equally disarming as the emotional ballast that keeps Charlie and their family afloat. The actors all achieve a certain ingenuous tone that helps sell the movie. It matters little that we have no idea of things like how the farm survives when nobody seems to be working it or why no one balks when Charlie pulls the children out of school to help him with his project. Shot in stunning widescreen by the Polishes’ longtime cinematographer, M. David Mullen, Audie and the others are frequently backlighted to achieve that certain heavenly glow. And Willis turns up as a fellow astronaut in an unbilled role that provides the movie with some bomber-jacket cachet. Fans of the Polish brothers and fans of inspirational movies may all depart the theatre scratching their heads: The Astronaut Farmer is not exactly the movie any of these viewers expected to see. This is almost always a good thing – even if the movie is a deserved head-scratcher.