There’s no defining space.
— Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton)
Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) has a spacesuit. During his first appearance in The Astronaut Farmer, he’s wearing this silver outfit and riding his horse, apparently checking the perimeters of his ranch in Texas. He’s in shadow, slightly spooky, shot from a distance to show the sheer, deserty-looking space that surrounds him. Meantime, the soundtrack offers a smattering of NASA’s Greatest Hits, from a countdown to liftoff to Armstrong’s completely overexposed “one small step” speech.
If you consider this moment — equally abstract and concrete, exotic and mundane — as an introduction to Charlie’s mind, it’s briefly compelling. Whatever his investment in his spacesuit, the heavy-breathing, slow-moving figure out in the sand collapses multiple frontier mythologies. Charlie embodies the will to exploration, rugged individualism, exploitation, acquisition, and self-delusion. Charlie’s backstory provides further mythification: an erstwhile astronaut, he gave it up when his father, faced with foreclosure by the odious mortgage company, killed himself and left the ranch to his mustabeen hard-hit son. Since then, Charlie’s apparently been getting by and then some. Not only does he ride his horse and feed his cattle, but he’s also supporting three kids and building a rocket in his barn.
This daunting literalization of Charlie’s dream provides The Astronaut Farmer, another Polish brothers’ movie about slightly creepy but mostly charming eccentricity, the particular challenges that oddballs pose for communities. Like all movie oddballs, Charlie nurses his artistic temperament, thinking deep thoughts and worrying just a bit that he won’t actually achieve his goal. What then? he wonders. What if he doesn’t make it into orbit?
Such preoccupation means Charlie spends little time on daily details. Lucky for him, he has the perfect, infinitely patient wife in Audie (Virginia Madsen). She makes sure the three kids — girls Sunshine (Logan Polish) and Stanley (Jasper Polish), and a son named after the great Chuck, Shepard (Max Thierot) — have dinner every night and look on their father with sweetness and respect, even when their friends suggest he’s “crazy.” True, Audie shows a bit of upset when Charlie nearly bankrupts the family (“You’re supposed to keep us safe,” she scolds), but even then, she doesn’t try to stop the adventure. Instead, she grapples with a Meaningful Visit from her own father (Bruce Dern), such that she reconsiders men’s limits and aspirations, and how best to help them understand both. She also takes the kids to church.
BILLY BOB THORNTON as Charles Farmer and LOGAN POLISH as Sunshine Farmer
The coming foreclosure by the bank also upsets Charlie, but he doesn’t absorb the anxiety: he turns it outward. Angry at the loan officer (Rick Overton) who breaks the news, Charlie tosses a brick through the bank window. Whether you see this as childishness or righteous little-man-speaking-outness, the action has a minor consequence: Charlie’s instructed to get a “psychiatric evaluation” from onetime girlfriend and current school nurse Beth Goode (Julie White). She thinks she’s got his number: “The resentment you feel toward your parents isn’t going to fuel your rocket.” The pop-psychologizing might pass for insight in another movie, but Charlie goes her one better: “Building a rocket isn’t crazy. We deserve to leave the planet.”
Except that, as William Munny put it in Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” As Charlie thinks his hard work and obsession should pay off in terms he’s set up in his own mind, he’s increasingly unable to see the effects on everyone around him. While he believes that he must achieve the dream in order to be a right role model for the kids, they’re afraid of his outbursts.
“You better know what you wanna do,” he asserts, “before someone knows it for you.” Seeing school as an institution that curdles minds, Charlie decides to pull the kids out so they can help him on his project. They’re thrilled. Audie puts up about 30 seconds of protest, then agrees to Charlie’s terms: three weeks, max, then he’ll send them back. Meantime, Shepard’s assigned to play Mission Control.
The kids’ truancy does have some real-world effects, or more precisely, effects in a realm that resembles the real world in Polishy ways: the sheriff (Richard Edson) recalls Andy Taylor, quirked, and the federal agents (played by Mark Polish and Jon Gries), wear black suits and dark glasses, and pass their stakeout time pondering circular logic: “If we aren’t here and he launches, we’re gonna look like asses; if we are here and he launches, we’re gonna look like asses.”
(L-R) BILLY BOB THORNTON as Charles Farmer, MAX THIERIOT as Shepard Farmer and VIRGINIA MADSEN as Audie Farmer
With no way out, the suits hold hearings. FAA rep Jacobson (J.K. Simmons) means to protect Charlie from himself but also, more importantly, to protect the inviolate sanctity of the official space program. Orbiting is the government’s business. Enter the press, that most convenient of movie devices, always good for generating populist sentiment. And before you can say, “Some pig,” the corps is camped out at the ranch, simultaneously the bane and savior of Charlie’s project. Agents don’t want to be shooting him down on camera, after all.
Much like the Polishes’ Twin Falls Idaho or Northfork, Astronaut Farmer endorses weirdness over conformity. Not so lyrical or strange as its predecessors, this version of such fantasy is both too literal and too celebratory. When Charlie briefly impresses an old astronaut buddy, the odiously named Masterson (Bruce Willis) with the size of his rocket, he’s also reminded that the space — as a frontier, anyway — belongs to the government.
Masterson offers to pull some strings and get him a ride on an officially sanctioned ship. But Charlie is determined. And so he leans on the movie’s most hackneyed device: the hero’s wife. Audie, ever resilient and accommodating, bears and expresses the emotional costs of all his masculine dreaming (as she also tends to her father and sees in her son what Charlie tends to miss). When Charlie frets that she’s doubtful, she shushes him: of course, she’s always believed he’s going to launch his rocket. And with one neat, maybe comical metaphor, it’s very clear what’s at stake.