Mikey Saber, the down-and-out porn star played by Simon Rex in Red Rocket, has a big, swinging dick. That’s not just a metaphor, the film makes clear while capitalizing on the comedic potential of a character who has no problem letting it all hang out. But it’s Mikey’s personality that Red Rocket — the latest from director Sean Baker and his regular co-writer Chris Bergoch — actually wants you to gawk at with its endless confidence and blunt-force charm. Mikey is a force of nature, leaving behind a tornado’s trail of destruction. He has the weatherbeaten handsomeness of someone who doesn’t believe it’s possible to stay too long at a party and the body language of a floppy puppy. He’s the kind of resilient underdog that American audiences have been practically hardwired to root for: The guy is already imagining a triumphant return to Los Angeles even as a bus dumps him back in his hometown of Texas City, Texas, with nothing left but the shirt on his back and a black eye.
Mikey is also a ruthless narcissist, liar, and user who makes the lives of everyone he comes into contact with worse — “Oh my shit,” his not-yet-ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), both say despairingly when he rolls up unannounced to their doorstep yet somehow he talks his way into crashing on their sofa. He spends most of the movie trying to convince Strawberry (the terrific Suzanna Son), the 17-year-old doughnut-shop employee he starts sleeping with, to run away with him to California to launch an adult-film career of her own that he can glom onto. The queasy fascination of Red Rocket, which is easier to admire than love, comes from its positioning of Mikey as the kind of character we’ve been taught is supposed to succeed against all odds or, barring that, learn that the key to happiness has actually been within their grasp the whole time. It plays like a movie-length bout of aversion therapy aimed at our instinctive fondness for motor-mouthed strivers with Mikey’s every small victory creating more dread.
In an era when independent films get regarded as auditions for franchises, Baker’s been a stalwart banner-carrier for making work outside the system an end unto itself. He keeps his budgets low to free himself from external pressure and frequently casts first-time actors as characters who feel informed in some way by the people playing them. Rex, whose enduring career on the outskirts of fame has taken him from model to MTV VJ to Scary Movie regular to sitcom actor to novelty rapper, is hardly a novice, but he’s been out of the spotlight long enough that it’s almost the same thing. It’s clear why Baker chose him and not just for the resonance of Rex’s having had his own brief brush with porn when he was a teenager. Rex imbues Mikey with an air of naïveté even when he’s being awful, as if his ability to sell himself on his own bullshit frees him from culpability for his actions. He’s not as cunning as he’d like to think, but that doesn’t matter when people want to believe him.
Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the sad sack next door, allows himself to be enlisted as a driver in order to listen to Mikey’s blatherings about his exploits. Lexi, who emerged from her stint in porn with considerably more damage than Mikey, is nevertheless soon inviting him into her bed and entertaining dreams of building a life with him despite knowing better. And Strawberry sees through many of Mikey’s deceptions but likes the stories he spins about stardom enough to stay with him, drawn to the promise of a way out of the industrial community in which she’s stuck. Mikey’s way with people has less to do with his powers of persuasion than with their own desperation. Baker portrays Texas City as an unlovely cluster of neighborhoods pinned to the Gulf Coast by a collection of oil refineries, a place where even the potential prettiness of the waterfront is colored by grim history. While doing some fishing, Lonnie points out a patch of land on the horizon and informs Mikey that those are the Texas Killing Fields, where multiple bodies of murdered young women and girls have been found. Mikey, who just did a little singsong about the teen he’s targeting being just on the right side of legal, doesn’t make any connection, but it’s not clear that Lonnie does, either.
Red Rocket takes place around the 2016 election, with news coverage playing out on televisions and radios in the background, uncommented on. The film doesn’t need to push to make the connection between Mikey, Trump, and our continuing susceptibility to charismatic grifters making grand promises they have no intention of keeping. But even if Red Rocket does feel like it captures something about our national makeup, it’s a draining experience to spend so much time with Mikey, watching him bounce from person to person while waiting for someone to snap and send him on his way. Baker’s a filmmaker whose work has always been marked by a radical empathy for characters who are often down and out, or just barely getting by on the fringes, and who work in gray zones where they’re offered little protection. Red Rocket extends a similar generosity to everyone who surrounds Mikey, but Mikey himself is a spiritual black hole in the center of the film. It’s possible to recognize the truth in his characterization while also being exhausted by the whole experience, and by the feeling that if consequences finally do come calling, he’ll figure out a way back. The always-admired ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going has never looked so depressing.
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