Ad Astra (2019) by James Gray
Review / Personal Essay by Logan Kenny
Content Warning: spoilers for Ad Astra; discussion of Suicide
Roy stares at the planet below him. There is no real expression on his face as he glares at the blue underneath his feet, taking in a perspective that most people will never get to see with their eyes. He has numbed himself beyond feeling. There is no room for emotion anymore. When he falls, there is process, there is examination, there is a brief attempt to change his situation, but his acceptance of his own death comes remarkably quick. His heart doesn’t even beat any faster than normal. This is the end that he’s been waiting for. It’s almost disappointing when he wakes up alive and remembers that he’s alone.
I’ve wanted to kill myself before. I’ve almost done it more times than I’d like to admit. There are scars on my left arm, cuts marked into my flesh forever from the times that my head was overloading and I didn’t know what else to do. There have been instances where I have written notes to my father, written poetry about facing the end and imagining the scenes of my own death. How would I do it? Would anyone even care? In between my own tears, I would feel nothing but loathing for being pathetic and weak. The thoughts of permanent isolation were often cataclysmic. Sometimes my suicidal thoughts didn’t come from depression or loneliness, but hurt from my own failings and the abuse of others. The pain of a life lived already haunts me. I feel so much older than I am. I feel my skin hardening, my emotions closing off, my body transform in front of my eyes. There’s an eternal pain of waking up every day and knowing that a new hurt can enter your life, and that there’s nothing you can do to change the fates of other people. But I’m still here.
I don’t talk about this anymore. I don’t talk about many things anymore. I used to talk about these things at length: my confusion with sexuality, my anger at being an adolescent autistic who didn’t know how to cope with all these feelings raging within him, my frequent desire to let it all fade away. Over time, I lost the ability to share these things. Being hurt has limited my intimacy in a way that counts, I chose to become the person that exists for other people instead of reconciling with my own shit. There was this vision in my head that if I ever shared these things with anyone, I’d get the worst type of reaction: pity. I didn’t want to be a subject of others’ sympathy – it makes my skin crawl. But really, I was afraid that they’d hurt me too. I recently went through a bad break up and told no one for weeks; I viewed it as my task to bear alone. Other people had it worse, after all. No one knew about my scars unless their fingers grazed my arm or saw them shining against the light. As much progress as I’ve made, I’m still a scared autistic kid, trying his best to deal with everything in his head. There’s a fear that I’ll never be any more than that.
Ad Astra is the most autistic movie I’ve ever seen. There is no explicit descriptions of Roy’s condition, but it’s obvious to anyone who pays attention: there’s his self-control (even the ability to control the pace of his heartbeat), his dedication to process, his emotional repression, and his walls breaking down whenever something doesn’t go to plan. Throughout the film, we constantly hear the thoughts in his own head. They are scattered and looping, seemingly simplistic at first but gradually more complex and melancholic. They never truly stop. He is always thinking about something; his brain will never slow down. The narration is a perfect reflection of what it’s like to be in my head in a way that no movie has really captured before. Even with films about explicitly autistic protagonists, there is always a distance between subject and craft. There is always something we will never understand about them, because we can only see how they act and not how they feel or how they think. In Ad Astra, we see all of Roy. Every part of him is exposed to the lens. We have to sit with his thoughts and his posturing and realise that he’s struggling.
Roy wants his father back. He left when Roy was young and came back when Roy was too old to be changed. Roy’s life has been defined by the images of a man he never truly knew. He wanted to make his dad proud and became an astronaut like him, committing himself to the same issues with intimacy and constant risk of death. There is no definitive way to feel close to the dead, but he kept trying. His desperation throughout the film to do something that would make his old man love him is inescapable. When he sees his father again, so much older than he’d ever have pictured him, and hears his dad tell him that he never loved him, a single tear runs out the corner of his eye. He can’t hide anything anymore. There is no point in bottling it all up when hearing something like that. Everything goes up in smoke because of one sentence. His father has never been further away from him.
There has been some criticism mounted at the film for its handling of Liv Tyler’s character. She may have been a mandate of studio interference, a subplot designed to add extra humanity or mainstream appeal, or whatever the justification was. To me, her inclusion adds an overwhelming sense of failure to every action Pitt takes. The first scene they have together shows Pitt positioned in focus as his wife collects her stuff and prepares to leave. She turns to look at him, her faded shadow obviously desperate for him to show something, for the focus to shift away from his work and onto her. But it never does; he can’t let it. Then she’s gone. Throughout the rest of the film, she’s reflected through internal monologue, attempted phone calls and fragments of Roy’s memories. The editing is seamless in how it presents reality and memory as existing together – one experience leading into the reflection of another, the little details of each experience colliding together, and leaving nothing but a spiral of regret and misery. The final third in particular uses a hazy editing technique to reflect the ship and Roy’s mental isolation as a beacon for everything he misses, everything he regrets and, most importantly, everything he loves. There are a few films that have made me feel like they’ve visually represented what it’s like to be autistic simply through their editing. The films of Terrence Malick stand out, particularly his 2010s work, which use abstraction and the sensation of memory to build their textures and emotional tangibility. Ad Astra also does this, but maps it to very particular patterns and reactions, with a protagonist whose contemplation is so similar to mine that at points, it felt like the lines between reality and fiction were becoming interchangeable.
Pitt’s performance is the best work of his career. His grasp of emotion is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a performer, the way his dialogue repeats and his eyes flare up in frustration when a task is taken away from him. You can see him burying his emotions in key moments by digging into the ground, attempting to remain rigid and keeping his eyes away from contact. The aforementioned tear is heartbreaking but the ways in which he tries to keep his demeanour in spite of everything collapsing around him is the most personally relatable performance I’ve ever seen. Pitt’s work is reminiscent of every autistic person I've ever known, including myself, in the ways that he’s attempting to restrict himself to normalcy only to have that image broken down over and over again by the world. Whether it’s intentional or not, the performance is the ideal portrayal of an autistic character – not merely an endless series of tics and caricatures. Pitt’s performance made me feel like someone cares about us as real human beings, adults with daily lives and dreams and regrets and desires, which is increasingly rare. There’s a comfort in knowing that there have been people like me before, in fiction and in reality, desperate for something to cling onto as everything glides through the stars. James Gray’s work behind the camera and the emotional depth he gives his characters has always been remarkable, but the confidence and patience he has here is transcendent.
In the final 10 minutes of Ad Astra, there is a moment where we see Pitt in his sprawling glory, content to drift away into his space like his father did, to follow the man into yet another hellfire. But he doesn’t. He remembers what it’s like to live. He leans forward and makes the effort to survive, and as we see him jettison across the darkness of space, we see all the images that made him who he is. We see his eyes burn up with determination, their fierceness and urge to live through this and make his way home. He chooses to live, like I did, and like so many of us have before. Not just survival, not just letting ourselves get through violence for one more day, but actively wanting to be alive and doing everything in your power to ensure that’s the case. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be moments in the future where you don’t want to be alive anymore. That’s not how life works. There is never a total cure for suicidal ideation. But the power it takes to take that first step across the horizon, regardless of everything else, is greater than any physical strength. You live for hope. This could have saved my life as a kid. It still feels like it’s saving me now.
The ending of the book Stoner has left a major impression on me for years. At the end of a book predicated on intense suffering, the dissatisfaction of being tied to the wrong person, the wrong place, the protagonist stares at his own mortality. He knows it’s the end, and mulls over everything he’s ever experienced. Instead of feeling the regret he has for years gone by, he feels a form of catharsis and beauty. It might have been flawed and hard and devastating at points, but he finds meaning in his life. Because it was his. And the ending of Ad Astra is in a similar vein: Roy makes it home, landing safely on Earth, a place he believed he’d never be again and gets rescued by a team of officials who think he’s a hero. All that matters is seeing the sun shine on Roy’s face, seeing this man who never allowed himself to feel, smile the biggest grin you could ever imagine. He is alive, he gets another day with the sun and the stars. The world will be filled with uncertainty, he might not fully repair his relationship with his wife, and he might fall back into old habits. But in this one moment, he is able to break past 50 years of repression and allow himself to be proud of himself. His father never had to define him. We are alive, that’s what counts.