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February 23, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | February 23, 2007 |

Identical twin brothers Michael and Mark Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, Northfork) like to make films that quietly and cheerily explore the mythos of the American frontier — the longings and boyish dreaminess inspired by looking upon the endless prairie. But these guys don’t want to be Terrence Malick, with his artful glances and troubled, obtuse musings; they want to understand and communicate the West from the ground-level through gleefully commonplace characters named “Sunny Holiday,” “Happy,” and now “Farmer” — all normal but quirky in their particular pursuit of the Western myth.

The Astronaut Farmer (eponym or double entendre?) begins, fittingly, with a shot of the Texas prairie at dawn, a foreboding, flat plain as weird as any lunar landscape. Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) trots along on a horse, wearing his spacesuit and looking across the land, suggesting that though the frontier ceased to exist in a literal sense long ago, one may remedy the sensation of unknowable infinity by simply looking to the stars.

Farmer has done exactly that; undeterred by his unfortunate separation from NASA, he’s constructed a DIY rocket in his barn and plans to launch himself into orbit with his wife and children (Stanley, Shepard, and Sunshine) acting as mission control. It’s an odd dream, to be sure, but Farmer is steadfast, ignoring the constant condescension and incredulity of everyone around him, even as his project leaves the family ruefully indebted. Perhaps oddest of all, Farmer’s character is simply an affable southerner intent on his goal; not the kind of loopy eccentric who wants to visit another world, but a pragmatist who doesn’t merely believe he can go into space — he knows he can.

But Farmer’s efforts and characterization toe a fine line between the admirable pursuit of a longing against the odds and a dangerous solipsism: Though he’s willing to put his life and livelihood at risk, he doesn’t seem as considerate of his wife (Virginia Madsen) and kids, who’ll be left to pick up the pieces if he fails and/or is killed. This is familiar territory for the Polish Brothers (Michael directs, while Mark co-writes), whose previous films have dealt with inscrutable protagonists who seem heroic but often wreak havoc on those around them. But Farmer is unusual precisely because of his dispassion; he longs for the heavens themselves, but neither his character nor Thornton’s portrayal give any emotional clue as to why, beyond the bare schematics of the story.

Perhaps it’s because the Polish Brothers are a bit out of water here in their first big-budgeted feature, but most of The Astronaut Farmer feels strangely incongruous. The actors here look and feel too big for their roles, playing characters that are as normative as possible due to the screenplay’s call for either realism or understatement. And the film’s resulting tone is a curious one — it’s neither the saccharine feel-good flick the previews suggest nor a cynical look at the destructive tendencies of dreamers. Michael and Mark’s message is certainly an affirmative one, suggesting that our dreams are often fulfilled in quiet, restrained manners, but their vision in The Astronaut Farmer is only a success or a failure based on one’s initial expectations; for my part, it was impossible to hate, like, or love a movie that was so unassuming.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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The Astronaut Farmer / Phillip Stephens

Film | February 23, 2007 |

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