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THE ASTRONAUT FARMER – Stuart Matthewman

February 23, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

The opening image of “The Astronaut Farmer” presents a challenge to the audience… almost a dare. It’s an image of a man in a spacesuit riding a horse across the plains, a bizarre thing that will either inspire curiosity, derision, or laughter from an audience. It’s the film’s way of saying, “get on or get off right now, because you’re in for something pretty unbelievable.” Some will (and have) labeled the film as a ridiculous piece of nonsense, which is understandable. It’s one of those stories that can “only happen in the movies”. Twenty years ago, that might have been a complaint on my end, but these days… I don’t think that’s so bad.

Our hero is Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), a failed astronaut turned rancher who has dreams of going to outer space. He has put his dreams into action by building a spaceship, a remarkably good one at that. Assembling the ship from pieces he’s ordered and found in junkyards, he has managed to come close to fulfilling his dream, even though he’s taken his family into deep debt in the process. However, this is not a source of conflict… his wife (Virginia Madsen) and three children are behind him all the way, the rocket is their “family project”.

Charlie finally attracts the attention of the government when he orders 10,000 pounds of rocket fuel… which of course causes suspicions that he could be building a weapon of mass destruction. Once these fears have subsided, Charlie still has to deal with the FAA, who are very much against the idea of letting some civilian attempt to fly to space in a homemade rocket.

The movie is a fantasy very much in the vein of “Field of Dreams”, a fantastic story that reaches beyond the realm of the remarkable into the realm of the mythical, while still very much being based in human roots. Many of the events that transpire over the course of the film are idealistic and improbable, but not entirely outside the realm of our imagination. We all have outlandish dreams we imagine we could accomplish (such as mine of being a bona fide film critic), “The Astronaut Farmer” simply takes what many of us would only imagine to a level of reality.

The performances here are part of what make the film so wonderful, all of them are played with perfect sincerity. Billy Bob Thornton rings some new notes playing this character, and makes Charlie a compelling character who we want to root for despite his possible insanity. Virginia Madsen is given more to do here than she has been in recent films, and avoids the usual “concerned wife” clichés that often accompany this sort of role. It’s always wonderful to have great character actors like Bruce Dern, J.K. Simmons, and Tim Blake Nelson on hand, while Bruce Willis once again demonstrates his effectiveness as a supporting player (he plays a real-life astronaut friend of Charlie’s).

The film was directed by The Polish Brothers, who previously created the beautiful (but occasionally frustrating) “Northfork”. They have certainly made their most accessible film with “The Astronaut Farmer”, but they have not sacrificed any of their creativity or individuality in the process. Their film somewhat resembles a mainstream family movie, but little elements of the acting, direction, and cinematography exist somewhere simultaneously within and above the mainstream.

The score by Grammy-winning songwriter/producer Stuart Matthewman is also unusually effective, probably because it saves the big moments for the big moments, lending them a far greater impact. It’s a very warm Americana score with some memorable thematic ideas, and is very satisfying both in the film and as a standalone experience on album. The sequences in the film’s final third receive some particularly strong score selections… I particularly enjoyed his use of otherworldly electronic sounds during one scene (the details of which should not be revealed here). Matthewman also scored “Northfork”, and I wasn’t a big fan of that particular effort… many mainstream artists who attempt to try their hand at film scoring tend to produce mixed efforts at best, but Matthewman’s score is a mature and engaging orchestral effort that I think will pleasantly surprise quite a few people. He also penned a song for one scene in the film, “I Made a Lover’s Prayer”, which is by Gillian Welch. It fits in very smoothly with the rest of the score. Elton John’s “Rocket Man” is played over the film’s end credits, listening to the lyrics, one wonders whether the song served as an inspiration for the film. One amusing bit: John Williams’ “The Imperial March” is an FBI agent’s cell phone ring whenever he receives calls from his superiors.

These days, we’re having a rough time in the world. War, terrorism, disease, and who knows what else has put us on edge. At the cinema, we seem desperate to find anything that will numb us, being beaten over the head with mindless horror films and comedies that push the limits of good taste to the very extreme (though not the humor). There’s an emphasis on so-called “realism” at the movies now, with lots of wild editing, jerky cameras, graphic violence, and grimy atmosphere. We’re up to our ears in it. Watching “The Astronaut Farmer” is like taking a breath of clean air, some of the early innocence of Steven Spielberg’s earlier films like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” is here. It’s a story that could only happen in the movies, but sometimes that’s why we go to the movies… to find optimism and hope that’s missing in our everyday surroundings, to escape from this often ugly world. I realize my sentiments are corny, but if you sympathize with them, you will probably have an appreciation for this film.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Opening Titles (2:08)
  • Sleepy Shepard (1:05)
  • Bank (1:19)
  • Smoochy/Lost Ring (1:06)
  • Meeting Grandpa (1:23)
  • Nurse Goode Chases Farmer (1:22)
  • FBI Arrive (2:36)
  • Embrace the Media* (1:39)
  • Weatherman* (:58)
  • Farmer and Sunshine (1:56)
  • Colonel Sees Rocket (2:06)
  • Colonel and Farmer in Trailer (3:26)
  • Farmers Speech (1:35)
  • Dunkin Donuts* (2:01)
  • Funeral (2:35)
  • The Bullet Keeps On Traveling (1:59)
  • Wreck (1:03)
  • Pick Up Farmer (1:17)
  • Hospital (3:44)
  • Farmer Wakes (1:38)
  • Sad Family (2:31)
  • Bag of Money Preparations (4:23)
  • Leaving (2:47)
  • Pre Launch (1:02)
  • Launch (1:50)
  • In Space (2:20)
  • Lost In Space (4.52)
  • Ring (1:08)
  • Re-Entry (1:16)
  • Home (2:07)
  • I Made A Lover’s Prayer (written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, performed by Gillian Welch) (5:03)

Running Time: 65 minutes 18 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6790 (2007)

Music composed by Stuart Matthewman. Conducted and orchestrated by Robert Mathies. Additional music by Robert Mathies. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster and Stuart Matthewman. Edited by Jay Duerr. Album produced by Stuart Matthewman.

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