The debate over the difference between mainstream and independent movies has raged for decades. The line has blurred more and more over the years as so-called independent companies began financing multi-million dollar films like The English Patient or Fargo, which were still labeled as "independents." To make things more complicated, what does one call a movie made by an independent filmmaker for a mainstream audience, say Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, Richard Linklater's School of Rock or Spike Lee's Inside Man? I'd argue that we could call it an acceptable compromise between personal vision and entertainment, and a case in which everybody wins.
That's also the case with Michael and Mark Polish's The Astronaut Farmer. It's the fourth film by the identical twins, who write all their screenplays together and appeared together in their debut, Twin Falls Idaho (1999). Subsequently, Michael has established himself as a director, while Mark has taken on acting roles. Their three previous films, which include Jackpot (2001) and Northfork (2003), certainly cannot be classified as "mainstream." A familiar collection of odd, beautiful wanderers and losers populate their frames, from Siamese twins, to a traveling, professional Karaoke singer and a pair of mysterious, black-suited agents charged with evacuating the site of a future lake. This time the hero of their film does not fit in with this crowd and we have the makings of an American hero: a man who launches his own rocket into space.
Texas rancher Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) was once a NASA hopeful who quit when tragedy struck his family. Now his only chance to get into space is to do it himself. Blessedly, the Polishes avoid the typical "origin" setup that most movies of this type would use. They begin with the story already in progress; the rocket is nearly built. They also avoid stupid, bludgeoning exposition because, naturally, Farmer's friends and family would never actually talk to him about his past misfortune. They cleverly save all our questions for a TV newscast in which a reporter reveals all. (The press is treated here as both friend and foe.)
Of course, it's not a simple matter to quietly build a rocket, as if one were building a canoe. NASA officials would like Farmer to fail. As a NASA colonel (played by an uncredited Bruce Willis) explains, if some guy proved that it could be done cheaply, NASA's annual billion-dollar budget would begin to look excessive and foolish. From there, the filmmakers unfold the main story with all the proper ingredients intact. The ornery, half-defeated hero easily earns our sympathy and support, like Rocky with a cockpit instead of a boxing ring.
But what makes the movie special are the personal touches from the twins, from a shot outside a supermarket depicting a runaway shopping cart to the FBI agents assigned to wait near Farmer's ranch, looking for telltale signs of an impending launch. Played by Mark Polish and Jon Gries (the latter was the star of the criminally underrated Jackpot), their scenes range from deadpan discussions to a game of horseshoes. Most mainstream filmmakers practice the science of deleting these personal touches, smoothing out so-called "wrinkles" that keep the plot from moving forward. Independent filmmakers, however, realize that these touches make the movie, like the impurities that give a glass of water its taste.
The twins have also begun to attract a high quality cast, beginning with their last film (James Woods actually co-produced Northfork in order to ensure himself a part). In The Astronaut Farmer, J.K. Simmons plays his usual satisfyingly crusty official, Tim Blake Nelson plays an atypical, crafty and headstrong lawyer, and the great Richard Edson (Stranger than Paradise) is transformed from a New York thug to a Southern small town deputy.
But this is not to distract from the skill behind the main chunks of the movie; The Astronaut Farmer is as exciting and moving as any PG-rated "family" movie in recent years. Farmer's relationship with his family, his wife (Virginia Madsen), his teenage son (Max Thieriot) with a knack for engineering, his younger son and daughter (Jasper Polish and Logan Polish), and grandpa (Bruce Dern), features as many "real" moments as it does "movie" moments. And a thrilling, early launch sequence skillfully melds special effects and human emotions. In one startling moment, Farmer instinctively throws his arms out in front of him as if he could possibly brace himself against the off-course, speeding projectile's horrifying impact. This small touch makes the scene work.Indeed, in other hands, this would have been a slick widget full of special effects, an energetic, thumping musical score and little else. The Astronaut Farmer himself could actually be a metaphor for his own movie. He's warm, messy and scrappy while NASA (i.e. mainstream Hollywood moviemaking) is slick, soulless and machinelike. Thankfully the Polishes know the difference.