Red Rocket is a hilarious yet purposefully ill-mannered character study of a former pornstar that has both Sean Baker and Simon Rex delivering their best work to date. “It might sound crazy, but it ain’t no lie baby, bye bye bye!”
For some reason, most of Sean Baker’s works haven’t clicked with me. I haven’t figured out the exact reason why. The first film I saw of his was The Florida Project (2017), which left me a bit cold when the credits rolled, yet I admired the cinematography and performances, most notably Bria Vinaite. I then followed it up with Tangerine, which I loathed and whose story I couldn’t deal with. However, something finally clicked with me when I saw Starlet recently. The way Baker explored the different “worlds” that the leads of the film inhabit and then put them together delivers something remarkably honest. This path now leads us to Baker’s latest and, in my opinion, best film to date, Red Rocket.
The film centers around a washed-up porn star, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who’s at sixes and sevens in regards to his future so he decides to go back to his hometown in Texas and begs to stay at his estranged wife, Lexi’s (Bree Elrod), house. That is one part of what the film has to offer. What’s left is a slowly provoking portrait of a shameless man. Saber is a parasite. A leech looking for what to feed on next to make his way back to the top again. The more the film progresses, the seedier Mikey gets. At first, he is witty and charming. Later you realize that he is a slimy opportunist making questionable decisions and using everyone around him for his benefit just to get out of an environment he can’t survive in. That is where Suzanna Son’s character Railey (or as she prefers to be called, Strawberry) comes into the mix.
The first time he laid eyes on her there was an unpleasant feeling oozing from the screen. As if from that point on Mikey was going to take a massive turn for the worse concerning his “options”. But, of course, the audience knows his true intentions and we all want his comeuppance to come sooner rather than later. The effectiveness of the narrative is due to how well the characters are written as well as to how strong and dedicated the cast is, specifically Rex and Son. One thing I admire about Baker is how he finds completely unknown talent (or out-of-the-blue casting choices) that perfectly inhabit their respective roles. They also give Red Rocket a grounded touch; you understand why these characters are the way they are, even though its story might be approached as almost satirical or comedic.
Another critical element to Baker’s films is his selection of the movie’s environment. In this it makes us understand how these people work and function throughout their days as well as the direct effect Mickey has on their lives after he arrives in town. It changes “everything” for several characters, mostly for the worse; it depicts the life around the transformative decisions they are making. An example of that can be the looming presence of the massive industrial factories in the background when Mickey is riding his bicycle, which might represent the displacement of industry jobs in America. On a slightly negative note, there are some scenes that go on for more than they need to, but its ending is strong enough to make Red Rocket a ride worthwhile. Also, if you like NSYNC’s hit, “Bye, Bye, Bye”, after watching this film you will never hear it the same way again.