When they first came on the scene with Twin Falls Idaho, brothers Michael and Mark Polish displayed an obscurantist sensibility that wasn't entirely their own, with bits and pieces lifted from David Lynch and the Coen brothers, and a strain of Hollywood sentimentality. Following two similarly perplexing efforts, Jackpot and Northfork, the Polishes have made a surprising crossover into wholesome PG-rated studio fare with The Astronaut Farmer, which turns out to be no less bizarre than their indie films. Telling the story of a former Air Force pilot who builds a homemade rocket in his barn, the film sounds like something Jonathan Demme might have done early in his career, an offbeat look at the American Dream and its consequences. But the Polishes play it as an arrow-straight inspirational drama along the lines of October Sky, which only makes the film all the more peculiar for downplaying the pie-in-the-sky ridiculousness of its hero's quest.
In a typically reserved performance, Billy Bob Thornton stars as a soft-spoken Texas cattle rancher who was on the fast track to becoming an astronaut when he abruptly quit to save the family farm. Unwilling to give up on a dream he's nurtured since childhood, Thornton sets about building a homemade rocket ship in his barn—a project that puts his family deep into debt. The townspeople write him off as a loveable eccentric, but once he orders 10,000 lbs. of jet fuel from a black-market source, the government takes notice and tries to shut down his unsanctioned mission. Even with his property crawling with media and law-enforcement officials, Thornton keeps soldiering on as scheduled, and his wife (Virginia Madsen), father-in-law (Bruce Dern), and three children are unwavering in their support.
Though the government tries to shut him down and the bank threatens foreclosure for massive loans, it's remarkable how easily Thornton elides the obstacles keeping him from outer space. Even his saintly wife raises no objections until he takes them to the brink of financial ruin. His irresponsible dreams have the scale worthy of Klaus Kinski's delusional madmen in Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre The Wrath Of God, but at no point do the Polishes call them into question or suggest the absurdity of the situation. To a certain extent, that works in the movie's favor; it presents Thornton as a figure much like Sam Shepard's Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, a solemn symbol of American individuality and personal freedom. On the other hand, the Polishes buff out the story's rough edges in order to court a family audience, and the film occasionally falls flat as a result. Too odd for a studio movie, too cornpone for the independent scene, The Astronaut Farmer finds its creators stuck awkwardly between worlds, making what amounts to a deep curiosity.