With THE ASTRONAUT FARMER, the Polish Brothers (Michael directing, Mark acting, and both writing the script) use a folksy veneer to their mythmaking that belies a sly sophistication, weaving together Joseph Campbell at his most profound with the spirit of The Little Engine That Could. The result is a film that explores not just the reaches of low-earth orbit, but also the disquieting effect that dreams engender among those without the vision thing. It is as profound as it is joyous.
Our hero is Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texas rancher near the fortuitously monikered town of Story. He made it as far as the space program without ever getting into space because of a family crisis. Unable to quite leave that dream behind, though, he built a working and workable rocket in his barn, thanks to a degree in aeronautical engineering and NASA’s junkyard. His family gets into it, playing dinner-table games about what to bring along on the trip, though whether devoted wife Audie (Virginia Madsen in a gauzy halo-like haze) truly believes it will ever fly is debatable. Never mind. Son Shepard (Max Theriot), as in Alan Shepard, a true believer and the mission commander, despite his tender 15 years, and daughters Stanley (Jordan Polish) and Sunshine (Jasper Polish) have the infinite faith that only children and holy fools like Charles can seem to muster. As a family, collectively and individually, they parry quips and left-handed compliments handed out by the locals who refuse to take it seriously. In fact, no one takes Charles seriously, not even when he files a flight plan with the FAA. It’s when he tries to buy enough rocket fuel to slip the bonds of gravity that people, specifically the Feds, start to take him very, very, seriously. Maybe too seriously, as they descend en-masse with the full force of the government’s disapproval behind them.
The Brothers suffuse the film with warm colors and the glorious, butter-colored sunshine that is the proper accessory to fables of this sort. And they are not above throwing in a homage to THE RIGHT STUFF, both quoting a motif or two and being inspired by the heroic style of cinematography to be found there, but interspersing that with the more intimate, small moments that are just as affecting. They build on that making it their own. Most striking is the way they make Charles a quiet sort of guy, the quiet of determination and a singular dedication to a goal that plays as reasonable, even when he lobs a brick through someone’s window. Thornton gets to the very soul of this guy, so that it’s the people around Charles who have less faith in pushing the envelope of their mundane existence that come across as the unreasonable types. Even the most well-meaning of them, such as the local school nurse (Julie White) who shares a little youthful history with Charley. When sent to her for a psych evaluation after the brick incident, she, all bubbly enthusiasm and nervous concern, tries to explain that his resentment towards his father won’t fuel his rocket, nor will that rocket bring him a happy childhood. That she is addressing her own issues rather than his, well, the best that can be said is that she means well. And here the Brothers have gotten to the heart of Charles’ dilemma, and the dilemma of anyone who carves out his or her own niche without regard to what others do or say or think. His paradigm is so different and the world view so restricted, that it is beyond the scope, not to mention comfort level, of others. The local lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) might swallow his qualms and pull out surprising stops to help Charles, but the astronaut (Bruce Willis at his low-key and charismatic best) sent to befriend Charles and then dissuade him from his dream, can’t see the sense of it, even while acutely understanding what drives Charles.
THE ASTRONAUT FARMER suffers the curse of being classified as a family film, and it is certainly true that family values are a vital part of it, plus the language and situations are plenty wholesome. No nudity, little cussing, and no drug use are to be found here. But the subtext has a more subtle, subversive turn. This is a story that challenges the status quo with a gentle but insistent nudge, celebrating personal freedom over the restraints of a big government that answers to no one. It’s quintessentially American and quintessentially enchanting.