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Review: Red Rocket

December 17, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Sean Baker makes films about the types of Americans that don’t usually get shown on movie screens, or, worse, get looked down upon by the coastal elites. You know, like sex workers, those living in abject poverty, and the types of “forgotten people” that may have voted for Trump in 2016.

Baker’s last film, The Florida Project, showed the struggling families living in the shadow of Walt Disney World and, for my money, it was the best movie of 2017. Baker follows it up with a different look at poverty in Red Rocket, moving the action from Florida to Texas to offer a raucous portrait of a grifter porn star tearing through his old town.

Our protagonist is Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who moved to California to make it big as an adult film star, but has since wound up strapped for cash. At the start of the film, he is slinking back to his hometown of Texas City to try and mooch off his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss). But things take a turn when he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the 17-year-old girl behind the counter at the local donut shop. She informs him that she will be eighteen “in three weeks,” and Mikey sees her as a porn star in the making, who might just be his ticket back into the big leagues.

If the idea of a washed up porn star in his early forties pursuing a 17-year-old sounds icky and gross, that’s because it’s supposed to be, and the film is fully aware of this. The genius of Baker’s film is how it causes us, like the characters, to fall under the sway of a manipulative charlatan. Rex’s character has a dogged energy that makes us want to root for him, but his own actions make it increasingly hard. We are like frogs in slowly boiling water, seeing how long we can continue to sympathize with this guy as he makes one questionable decision after another.

The screenplay, co-written by Baker and his frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, has an ear for sharp dialogue, including a manic kitchen monologue that Mikey delivers shortly after his arrival. Crucial to the film’s success is the fact that Baker never looks down upon his subjects, and only views them as worthy of ridicule if they bring it upon themselves. Instead, like in his other humanistic portraits of America’s working poor, he follows them with a great deal of empathy and compassion.

The film is set in an oil refinery town, with metal structures looming large in landscape shots. The story also unfolds against the backdrop of the 2016 election, with the Republican National Convention playing on TV in the background. It’s a clever touch that allows Baker to subtly infuse politics into the film, with a thought provoking but refreshingly not heavy handed undercurrent of Trumpian allegory and social commentary that runs through it. It’s also a smart way to avoid addressing the COVID-19 pandemic that became a reality during the 2020 election cycle when the film was shot.

Mikey is a narcissist who believes in his own greatness, and has a way of getting others to believe in it too, at least for a while. And Rex, who got his own start as a nude model and porn actor in the 1990s before being hired as a VJ for MTV and appearing in three of the Scary Movie films, is magnetic in the role. Like Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems and Robert Pattinson in Good Time before him, Rex excels at playing a character who is compelling to watch despite making a series of bad choices. We can’t really root for him after a certain point, but we can’t take our eyes off of him, either.

The film lives or dies in this balance, and Baker does a brilliant job of pulling it off. Son, a relative newcomer, also feels like a revelation in the role of the Lolita-esque Strawberry. Like in his previous films, Baker fleshes out his cast with non-actors, who breathe life into their characters and bring a naturalistic quality to the low budget film. The 16 mm cinematography by Drew Daniels does a good job of capturing the action, offering a nice mix of wide shots and intimate handheld work to highlight the performances, along with an ingenious rollercoaster shot.

This is an extreme film in a lot of ways, with sex scenes and graphic nudity (including Rex getting to show off the goods), and I can imagine some audience members being reflexively put off by the subject matter. But it’s refreshing to see a film made for adults that doesn’t try to go for preachy moralizing, with a protagonist whose actions are morally sketchy at best. In many ways, it harkens back to the more challenging American indie films of the 1970s.

While it might not have the same emotional release of The Florida Project, Red Rocket has a live-wire energy all its own, and builds to a finale that is rapturous in its own way. The film is a little over two hours long, but it simply flashes by, with Baker taking the charged energy of the donut shop sequence from his 2015 film Tangerine, and keeping it going for the entire running time. The cherry on top is the absolutely inspired use of *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” which becomes a sort of motif throughout the film, including Son’s stripped down piano cover.

The result is one of the most wildly entertaining movies of the year, with a propulsive, indefatigable energy to it that is encapsulated in Simon Rex’s firecracker performance.

Red Rocket is now playing in limited release.

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