Several years ago, when travel came easy, I was seated at the Alice Tully Hall for a screening of 'The Florida Project' during its run at the New York Film Festival. It was a euphoric experience. The festival itself felt like a theme park for film fans. I even bumped into Willem Dafoe after the show. But more than anything, I was exposed to an exceptional film brought to life by the distinctive eye of its director, Sean Baker. His sympathetic approach to life on the margins and his strong use of street casting left me utterly enraptured. Fast forward four years, and Baker's latest, 'Red Rocket', sees him exhibiting many of those strengths while moving into more provocative territory. The result is another masterpiece that all but solidifies Baker as one of the best doing it today.
Mikey Saber (Simon Rex, 'Scary Movie 3') is a washed-up porn star forced to return to his hometown of Texas City. Battered and broke, he lands on the doorstep of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod, 'Shutter Island') and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), and begs them for a place to crash. Despite their hesitations, they grant Mikey's wish on the condition he finds a job, helps pay the rent, and completes household chores. From there, Mikey's larger-than-life persona starts to take over the once-quiet neighbourhood. And when he meets the 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) working at a local doughnut shop, Mikey sees his ticket back to the big leagues.
The first thing to say about 'Red Rocket' is it exudes all the hallmarks of what makes Sean Baker such an engaging storyteller. Yet again, he has fashioned a freewheeling slice of life tale practically devoid of artifice. Baker is fascinated in presenting a darker side of America, with many of his stories involving low-income areas and the figures that populate them. And while that setup could so easily turn pulpy, Baker makes his world feel remarkably authentic. The decision by him and cinematographer Drew Daniels ('Thunder Road') to shoot on 16mm provides great texture to both the lush and industrial landscapes of Texas. Additionally, 'Red Rocket' again demonstrates just how skilful Baker is in eliciting natural performances from his non-actors. Few directors are stronger at conveying a level of verisimilitude, and it's electric to watch.
But where 'Red Rocket' diverges from Baker's previous works is in its truly loathsome protagonist. Mikey Saber is a shameless huckster. He's the kind of narcissist whose charisma and good looks has seen him totally avoid atonement despite the havoc he wreaks. It's not an easy role to pull off, but Simon Rex absolutely nails it. Rex does exactly what this character requires; he oozes the charm needed for us to believe Mikey would be given a chance, but never shies away from showcasing the character's more ugly qualities. Rex is remarkable because I found myself pondering how I could be so entranced by somebody so irredeemable. He gives Mikey an almost painful likability while still making us wish for his despicable behaviour to catch up with him.
Baker is fascinated in presenting a darker side of America, with many of his stories involving low-income areas and the figures that populate them. And while that setup could so easily turn pulpy, Baker makes his world feel remarkably authentic.
Set during the 2016 presidential election, it's inherent who Mikey is supposed to represent. Rex portrays a man who demands our attention, with a bevy of deluded monologues in his arsenal. But the reason I think Rex is so fitting is because 'Red Rocket' plays like a demented rendition of the American dream. Mikey will do whatever it takes to get back to the limelight, and Rex's storied career works somewhat as a parallel. He's played the part of actor, model, even MTV VJ under the moniker Dirt Nasty. He's worn many hats in Hollywood, and that sentiment applies well when playing a role like Mikey. Due to the material, I doubt it'll come to fruition, but his performance deserves to be in the awards conversation.
'Red Rocket' is unlikely to be an awards darling. It's an outstanding film, but when it aims to make you uncomfortable, it's almost too effective. As soon as Strawberry mentions she's of legal age, Mikey immediately starts grooming her, half out of infatuation and half out of the chance to pimp her out. The film is a horrific depiction of how easy it can be for men to slowly manipulate women for their own nefarious purposes. And even though Suzanna Son is 26, things are all the more uneasy given she could easily pass for 16. However, this isn't a criticism. 'Red Rocket' sits you next to an indecorous man and forces you to squirm through his antics. Like watching a car swivel between lanes, you feel a nervous rush before viewing the inevitable crash.
Once again, Sean Baker has bowled me over. 'Red Rocket' is an honest character study of an alarmingly shameless man. Brought to life by Simon Rex's magnetic performance, we travel down a very dark road, albeit a hard one to look away from. And just like all the people he takes advantage of, we are firmly in Mikey's grasp. Baker employs his compassionate viewpoint to disadvantaged communities, but this time sets a lion loose on them. It's a testing experience but equally the work of a master. It's another American classic from Baker and a superb start to a new year at the movies.