After his two deeply empathetic studies of lives on the fringes of America in the forms of Tangerine and The Florida Project, Sean Baker takes a bold, but not unwelcome, swing with Red Rocket, in which his latest protagonist, Mikey (Simon Rex), could generously be described as the worst man in the world. Here, Baker doesn’t ask for your sympathy for his lead so much as force you to see the ways in the US constantly rewards men like him, and still manage to make him compelling and funny along the way. It’s a gamble that mostly pays off, a high energy character study that, just like its star, grabs your attention whilst teetering dangerously close to wearing out its welcome.
A washed-up porn star, Mikey first appears to us on a Greyhound bus entering his old industrial hometown of Texas City as he flees from a series of bad breaks back in LA. For all his idiocy that we’ll later be exposed to, Mikey is a genius when it comes to using people, and it’s not long before he’s back to crashing on his ex-wife Lexi’s (Bree Elrod) couch and hitching free rides in his neighbour’s truck. After getting his lucrative old job of selling weed back, Mikey digs further and further into Lexi and her mum Lil’s (Brenda Deiss) life, until he decides to risk it all after meeting 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the local doughnut shop.
Mikey’s twin relationships with Lexi and Strawberry (who is, in his own words, ‘legal as an eagle’ by Texas state law) form the crux of Red Rocket’s story and, as may be evident, it is not a particularly pleasant one, driven as it is by a truly hardcore misogynist, the kind of guy who has endless ‘theories’ about women. Luckily, though, it is very funny – Baker and his regular co-writer Chris Bergoch pack their script with jokes, and Baker’s casting process of mixing professional actors with first-time performers unearths some hilarious supporting characters who prove natural fits for Baker’s comic rhythms.
They do all end up in Mikey’s orbit, though, and Rex, himself a one-time amateur porn actor, gives a remarkable star performance as this awful but often profoundly charismatic man. He can switch from dominance to wheedling subservience on a dime, and even manages to nail a scene that requires a skillset I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor require before, as Mikey reacts to a bombshell revelation whilst in the middle of a rollercoaster ride that Baker shoots for real. Young actress Son is also a real find, burning with confidence and getting a showstopping moment where she sings a breathy, indie-style cover of Nsync’s classic ‘Bye Bye Bye’.
As funny as the whole film is, Baker never shies away from just how bleak the situations Mikey creates are, especially when it comes to Strawberry as Mikey’s long-term plan becomes clear – he sees her as a way back into the porn industry, this time as Strawberry’s manager/groomer. It can be tough spending time with Mikey, and Red Rocket does run noticeably too long, the final act in particular dragging as the tone shifts to something sillier and more fantastical. There’s still stuff to enjoy here – Mikey’s fully nude sprint from one end of town to the other is riotously funny – but you may find your patience tested.
Just as he did with The Florida Project, Baker shoots his grimness gorgeously, bright colours and hazy summer light filling the frames during the day and ethereal artificial glows defining the night – no one films an American dusk quite like Baker. He finds dignity and beauty where other directors wouldn’t even bother looking, and the twin settings of Texas City and Galveston Island make for visually fascinating backdrops.
Red Rocket doesn’t have the same breakout potential as The Florida Project, but you get the sense that Baker doesn’t really want it to. This is a far less hopeful story, with its horrible ‘hero’ and 2016 setting meaning there’s a constant burble of Trump on the TV and radio to remind us that men like Mikey decide the fate of those around them at every strata of society. Embrace this darkness, though, and you’re rewarded with a smart and funny film, full of memorable faces and anchored by one of the most surprising star turns of the year.