Directed by Sean Baker; Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Some people are just born to be greaseballs, but in Red Rocket, Simon Rex almost does the impossible and gets us to root for the greasiest man to sidle back into his old Texas hometown, as he lights up Sean Baker’s film as Mikey Saber, homeward bound after 20 years spent in L.A. doing porn.
He’s a little used up, stumbling out of the bus with no bags and $22 in his pocket, making a beeline to his estranged wife’s (honestly ex-wife’s) place, who takes a lot of convincing to not call the cops on him, let alone let him stay. Once precariously tolerated indoors, he begins talking big game about this and that, finding honest work, starting a family up again, but all that’s put to the test when he comes across Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year (soon 18!) old who works at the local donut shop.
Sean Baker has an affinity for life’s fringe existences, trailing a transwoman prostitute in Tangerine and taking in life’s grimy twists through the eyes of a sex worker’s child in Florida Project. Despite their dour circumstances, both films refused pity, and Red Rocket is no different. Precarious financial straits in Trump country could easily turn morose, as drug abuse, piling bills and squalor threaten to seize the narrative, but in Baker’s hands, life’s sunny.
Source of that sunlight is Simon Rex. Call it providence (some of Rex’s early work was indeed X-rated), call it long-overdue recognition of underutilized talent, because not only does he seem a natural fit for this down-and-out loser who coasts on his own fumes and fast-fading looks, but his belief in his own lies is ironclad, and that is Rex’s doing. Life is indeed sunny in Mikey’s mind, and for believably pulling off a man with delusion-glazed eyes to the extent that he does should catapult Rex’s performance into any conversation about what stood out this year.
Because of Rex and Baker, Red Rocket sees us almost duped into cheering for Mikey, who by all accounts have few redeeming qualities. An entitled braggart, he’s manipulative and coercive, talking a mile a minute and saying little of importance. The same way Baker slowly peels back the shimmering facade to reveal a seedy existence underneath, so does he chip away at Mikey’s bullshit, and it’s not long before it’s impossible to deny that Mikey does indeed only darken people’s doorsteps down here in the Texan heat.
Baker’s film is above all fun. Funny in its snappy dialogue and how Rex dances with it, luridly funny in how Baker shoots it, and a little ADHD in how he leaps from action to consequence, as a walk along the beach can turn into a carnal fuck with one eager cut.
The steady and well-lubricated undoing of this hustler notwithstanding, Red Rocket has about as much plot as the smut Mikey probably used to star in, and Baker lets himself get a little distracted too with some of the secondary characters who fall flat against the core cast, perhaps too fond of bringing to the fore those we don’t often get to see on the big screen. Opposite Rex, Son signs herself up for bigger things, her Strawberry stepping to Mikey with a Lolita energy, which has probably already fueled some greasy Google searches. There to provide some tragic heft is Ethan Darbone as Lonnie, the good-hearted neighbor who runs afoul of the Pornhub Playboy next door.
Still as fun and vigorous as ever, Sean Baker can probably already now lay claim to the title of king of the lascivious outcasts, championing those who peddle in our taboo fantasies. Reaching out a hand and elevating them, even doing so for someone like Mikey Saber, who probably doesn’t deserve it.