Writer-Director Sean Baker creates another deeply humanistic film of people bound for disaster.
Since seeing Red Rocket, I haven’t been able to stop listening to “Bye Bye Bye.” The hum of the song’s wonky strings overlays the opening shot. As the camera zooms out from a jarring close-up of a bus seat, the synthetic beat kicks in, revealing Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), battered and bruised. NSYNC’s upbeat, indignant track lends a pulsing momentum to the opening montage as Mr. Saber disembarks from his steel chariot and starts the long walk to his ex-wife Lexi’s (Bree Elrod) domicile. “I know that I can take no more, it ain’t no lie,” indeed.
Pull Dirk Diggler from his darkest point in Boogie Nights, teleport him through time and space to the tiny town of Texas City, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of Mikey. His homecoming bodes well for no one. From the moment Mikey opens his mouth, it’s clear he’s got nothing to his name but a penchant for bullshit and an inability to take no for an answer. Worming his way back into Lexi’s house, Mikey waxes poetic about being run out of Los Angeles by MS-13 and makes empty promises about helping out around the house. He’ll be staying for a while.
Actor Simon Rex has his own experiences in the adult entertainment industry. This is hardly the first time co-writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine) has cast an actor with a real-world résumé to match their part. However, it’s Rex’s ability to articulate toxic self-destructiveness alongside flashes of wit and warmth—not his porno bona fides—that makes his performance work so well.
As Mikey begs Lexi and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss) not to kick him out, you can immediately tell that he’s going to screw these people over (again). But, at the same time, it’s believable that Mikey’s crafty enough to put these people in a position where they’re vulnerable, despite their better instincts. In other words, he’s smart enough to truly disgust you — watching Red Rocket is like seeing a car crash in slow motion, from the moment the vehicle responsible pulls out of the driveway.
Mikey’s a relic – perhaps that why Baker’s so interested in him. Now in his early forties, Baker’s stubborn commitment to down-to-earth humanist dramas make him an outlier in an industry dead-set on going bigger and louder. The filmmaker threads a fine needle here: Mikey’s afforded a good deal of empathy, but he’s also a punchline. Additionally, Baker refuses to let the viewer ignore the impact of Mikey’s actions. In the process, the writer-director creates a subject who is tragic, hilarious, and horrible, all at once.
[Sean] Baker’s gaze at his protagonist is nearly as sharp as his eye for strong compositions.
Baker’s gaze at his protagonist is nearly as sharp as his eye for strong compositions. As with The Florida Project, these frames aren’t enormously aestheticized, but they’re grainy and regularly gorgeous. You can almost feel the blazing heat of the hot summer sun in the oranges his camera captures. You can’t miss the nightmarish economic desolation that envelopes every inch of this world.
If there’s a flaw in Baker’s design, it’s his inability to grasp any sort of solution or resolution. The injustice at the heart of The Florida Project could be more clearly placed at its audiences’ feet, but Mikey ripples with agency even before the end of the first “Bye Bye Bye” needle-drop.
Set the summer before the 2016 election, Red Rocket occasionally intersperses audio from Democratic and Republican conventions, increasing the feeling that this story is headed towards self-inflicted catastrophe. To what extent is it possible for Mikey to break out of his toxic cycle? You can only blast NSYNC and skip town so many times. Of course, the movie’s job isn’t to save Mikey; it’s to conceptualize him fully. Rex, Baker, and Red Rocket succeed entirely.
Red Rocket is seductively winding its way through the festival circuit before opening wide on December 3rd.