Filmmaker Sean Baker’s Latest Delve Into Destitution is Sticky-Sweet Seduction
DIRECTED BY SEAN BAKER/2021
Mikey is just another swingin’ dick in another dilapidated Texas small town. Just off the bus from Los Angeles or wherever-the-hell-else, (accompanied by no less than the tubthumpin’ [Lance] bass of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”,) we quickly observe that this cornfed stud ain’t too proud to beg. Likewise, his haggard ex, Lexi (Bree Elrod) ain’t too proud to let him back in. Either that, or she’s immediately worn down by his victim spiel. It’s true that everyone comes from somewhere; for Mikey, it’s this most lowly of lone star state burgs.
The landscape of Red Rocket is a pockmarked Norman Rockwell painting that started disintegrating during the Carter administration, and the populace was resigned to let it. The storefronts are pathetic, there’s trash all over the place, drugs are everywhere, and it seems like just below the surface, everyone wants to punch each other in the face.
Restless indie auteur of the downtrodden, Sean Baker, concocted Red Rocket specifically for actor Simon Rex, a relative unknown with the “all-American” good looks (read- with full cynicism- as “healthy straight white dude”), chops and charisma to carry such a low-budget yet highly character-driven piece. Rex plays Mikey, a self-proclaimed porn star whose level of notoriety in that field comes across as suspect at best. His rise came circa 2000, and he lasted about that long. (A detail shared in real life by Rex).
The career was, however, enough for him to spend the next twenty years trading on it. Nary five minutes go by in Red Rocket without the 48-year-old Mikey shooting his mouth off about his unearned AVN award or the 900-odd people he claims to be subscribed to his adult website. One day in the local donut shop, while selling secondhand pot to the nearby road crew, Mikey becomes smitten with the counter girl, a seventeen-year-old redhead who goes by “Strawberry” (Suzanna Son).
As unlikely as the casting of Simon Rex in a mainstream movie such as this might seem, one ought to keep in mind that Red Rocket is truly not all that mainstream, and Rex indeed proves to be the only viable candidate for the part. The actor slots in perfectly on Baker’s track, radiating icky self-importance and the kind of self-aggrandizing bluster and hustle that some see as full of crap while others see it as presidential.
Ostensibly Red Rocket is a comedy of sorts, albeit a highly uneasy one. If there’s such a thing as “subtly gonzo”, this is it. It’s a handmade movie that might resonate as authentically bonkers (to glom onto an overused term) were it not for the stranger-than-fiction recent reality that inspired it. The constant cable news din in Lexi’s house of Trump versus Clinton in the 2016 presidential election timestamps the film to summer of that year. Amid that, the tale of an inexplicably charming narcissistic grifter having his way with the rubes plays out before our eyes. For over two hours, we watch as the barely smart enough Mikey attempts to stay half a step ahead of storm he’s kicking up.
Baker has spoken about how Red Rocket (co-written by Chris Bergoch) came about in lieu of another, bigger project that he had to put on hold. Seeing how the film plays effectively like a series of improvisational-ish bulletpoints making its way through its prescribed character arc, the director’s claims of this being a small project he had in reserve definitely checks out. The film’s vivid sunlit aesthetic serves to illuminate the dilapidation of a derelict town that’s just bright enough to give Mikey the side-eye before getting screwed over by him.
Like Baker’s previous films Tangerine and The Florida Project, Red Rocket is an exceedingly smart film about outsiders on the fringes of America. With explicit language, sex, and nudity to spare, it’s also his most risqué of that bunch. For reasons beyond Mikey’s former career, all of it is entirely justified. There might only be one way to read the thing, but it all adds up as a sharply edged commentary on the gross inexplicitly of the past five years. Saber’s allure may be all empty calories, quick fixes, and endorphin rushes, but Red Rocket blasts audiences with a thoroughly magnetic romp with a ridiculously unshakable main character.