After earning his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering and his pilot's wings in the Air Force in an effort to realize his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) sees his chances of soaring into outer space crash back to earth when his father's suicide leaves him responsible for fending off foreclosure of the family's rural ranch. Despite his bona fide background, people start to talk when he tries to give the term “space cowboy” a whole new meaning by wearing a spacesuit while riding his horse and…oh, yeah…by building an Atlas-Mercury rocket in his barn.
But like John's “Rocket Man,” Farmer is not the man they think he is at home. “Home” being Story, Texas, a town so farm-family folksy that the roadside cafe is called the “Calf-A.” He's also not the man they think he is in Washington, D.C., from whence spoilsports representing every fuddy-duddy federal agency from the FBI to the FAA descend on the “Farmer Space Program” when our hero tries to get his hands on 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel. How, one demands, can the U.S. government be sure that Farmer is not building a WMD? “Because if I was building a weapon of mass destruction,” Farmer deadpans in a droll drawl, “you wouldn't be able to find it.”
More troubling is the FAA's sneering suggestion that his homemade spacecraft is “a one-way ticket to the afterlife,” which causes Farmer's wife Audie (Virginia Madsen) to wonder if what her husband is really readying himself for is a suicide more spectacular than his father's — the ultimate symbolic escape from his earthly responsibilities. (“You want to see flying saucers?” she screams at Farmer during a plate-smashing argument at the dinner table after discovering that his single-minded pursuit of his dream has led them to the brink of bankruptcy.)
The Astronaut Farmer, the Polish Brothers—the indie auteurs behind
Twin Falls, Idaho
—have entered a higher orbit by crafting a bigger-budget family film about a cowboy who is singing to gravity itself when he belts out “Don't Fence Me In.”
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Theriot, Bruce Dern, Mark Polish, Jon Gries, Tim Blake Nelson, J.K. Simmons and Bruce Willis
Director: Michael Polish
Screenwriters: Mark Polish & Michael Polish
Producers: Mark Polish, Michael Polish, Paula Weinstein and Len Amato
Genre: Family drama
Rating: PG for thematic material, peril and language
Running Time: 104 min.
Release Date: February 23, 2007