The Astronaut Farmer
2007Director: Michael Polish
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern
he word on the street is that the Polish brothers have gone and sold their souls to the studio system, and The Astronaut Farmer qualifies as evidence. Known for cult films such as Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, Mark and Michael Polish were expected by both fans and detractors to continue tunneling down their own peculiar rabbit-hole toward further obscurity. This time around, it might be fairer to suggest that the pair have simply taken it upon themselves to make a film for which an audience already exists.
Set in West Texas (and filmed in New Mexico), the movie's opening shot depicts Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) riding out on his ranch garbed in spacesuit and helmet, but that's about as oddball as this affair is likely to get. We're quickly introduced to the wife and kids, as well as grandpa, the school psychiatrist, and a whole host of characters acquainted with the Farmer family, each of whom has an opinion on the rancher's desire to visit outer space. It seems that Farmer, as he's known, is building a rocket ship in a barn on his property, and though most laugh it off as nonsense, his startlingly supportive family seems to believe it's an idea so crazy that it actually might work.
Just conjure the phrase "family friendly," and you can largely infer the plot from there on out. Despite conflict from without and, in late moments of crisis, even from within, our hero will not allow anyone or anything to crush his innocent dream, no matter the consequences. That is not to say, however, that the script or its on-screen realization are without their charms.
Yes, Farmer will eventually finish his rocket and get his turn to play astronaut, but there are a few more wrinkles along the way than one might expect. An uncredited Bruce Willis, for example, delivers a bracing cameo very similar to his pink polo-shirted middleman in Fast Food Nation, comparable both in brevity and in pessimistic intensity. It might be no surprise in this libertarian fairy tale that Farmer gets in a few jabs at the federal government, but who saw the storyline about the illegal immigrant farmhand coming? And who but the most callous among us can deny the sheer thrill of a ride to outer space?
Particularly amid this season's dumping ground of slasher pics and non-award-winning holdovers from 2006, The Astronaut Farmer stands out as a pleasant little space journey and a good indicator that the heretofore insular Polish brothers just might wind up as respected and capable Hollywood artisans after all.
The Astronaut Farmer is currently playing in wide release.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-03-12