Plays at Cinematheque Feb. 4 to 17
Since breaking through with 2015’s Tangerine, writer-director Sean Baker has made a name for himself as an auteur utilizing guerilla-style shooting to create humorous and humanizing portraits of marginalized people on the fringes of American society. While his newest, Red Rocket, continues in that tradition, it injects a new darkness into his body of work.
Red Rocket stars Simon Rex as Mikey, a down-on-his-luck porn actor who returns to his economically depressed Texas hometown. Mikey appears at the doorstep of his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law (Brenda Deiss). It’s unclear why exactly Mikey has fallen out with the porn industry. He arrives on a bus from Los Angeles with a bruised face and no money. He soon begins selling weed to try and get back on his feet, all the while boasting of his imminent return to adult-film stardom.
Mikey is a walking bouquet of red flags. He’s the kind of narcissist who burns through the people around him faster than he can collect them. According to him, nothing is ever his fault. He’s deeply misogynistic. Every social interaction is transactional to him. These are scary qualities. But the scariest thing about him is how likable and charming he is despite being such a bastard. If he were simply an off-putting creep, he’d be less threatening than the wolf in sheep’s clothing he actually is.
The true danger of Mikey becomes apparent when he initiates a relationship with Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a teenage donut-shop employee. Strawberry is bright, mature and in way over her head with Mikey. Mikey claims to be many things: a pornstar, an agent, a talent scout. But as Strawberry gets in deeper with him, it becomes clear what he really is: a predatory pimp.
Several of Baker’s previous films (Tangerine, The Florida Project) have been empathetic stories of sex workers, showing the joy of their daily lives as well as the dangers they face. Red Rocket is a movie that’s literally about one of the human dangers they face. It’s like the Baker version of Volcano or Twister. There is a natural disaster wreaking havoc on all who touch it, and its name is Mikey.
Baker continues his practice of integrating first-timers or non-performers with established actors. Rex’s performance has been rightly praised, but non-professionals like Deiss or Ethan Darbone hold their own with him. The film’s real hidden gems, though, are Son as Strawberry (this is her first acting role) and Elrod as Mikey’s wife Lexi (Elrod is an accomplished theatre actor, but her sole prior screen credit is as an unnamed patient in 2010’s Shutter Island).
The film plays out against the backdrop of the 2016 US presidential election. There are obvious parallels between Mikey and Donald Trump, both exploitative predators who take credit for others’ success while shucking blame for their own failures. But the more trenchant commentary of Red Rocket is illustrating how the people in this floundering Gulf Coast town, or hundreds of others like it, could fall for these hucksters. These stagnant towns failed by the system, where the poor get poorer and the rich don’t exist, are feeding grounds for con men like Mikey and his ex-presidential counterpart.
Published in Volume 76, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 27, 2022)