Warning: This film review doesn’t contain outright ending spoilers, but I do refer to events that happen later in the story. I’d always recommend you watch the film first and then come back to read reviews afterwards.
Red Rocket” is the newest feature film from writer/director Sean Baker. It follows in the footsteps of his previous films “The Florida Project” and “Tangerine”, providing a glimpse into the journey of a headstrong protagonist and the true-to-life world he inhabits. This protagonist is Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) a former adult movie star who is down on his luck. He returns to his hometown in Texas looking for support from his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and her elderly mother. Despite some initial hesitation, they make the mistake of letting Mikey stay in their home and soon become reliant on him as he begins dealing cannabis to support them.
From the beginning, I was intrigued by Mikey. The strength of the character and the engaging performance by Simon Rex provide a much-needed hook in a film that otherwise doesn’t have a lot going on. It’s hard to find much to like about this guy, even less so as we get to know him throughout the course of the film, but what does make him endearing is his commitment to going after the things he wants. Mikey will manipulate and take advantage of anyone to get what he believes is best for himself. He has no shame about his continued manipulation and lack of consideration for others because he isn’t self-aware enough to realise what he is doing. He is self-righteous and believes he is the hero of this story, while simultaneously behaving outright selfishly.
The reason, I think, that both myself and other viewers will be drawn to Mikey is that to a certain degree we’re all like him. We’re all selfish; we act to get what we want, and like Mikey we’re in denial about the extent we are prioritising our own needs. However, the one big difference is that the average person is more subtle and tricky in their approach to fulfilling their own desires, whereas Mikey wears this trait on his sleeve. My guess is many viewers watching Red Rocket are going to have an unconscious admiration for this aspect of Mikey’s character, while still detesting the guy himself.
At the end of act one we meet Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a seventeen-year-old girl, whom Mikey is instantly attracted to. I really liked the introduction of Strawberry’s character. She first appears as a background character serving Mikey and his wife in the doughnut store, with her face only being revealed when Mikey first notices her. I’m sure this type of character introduction has been done in films of the past, but I thought it was smart, nonetheless. What I particularly enjoyed was it gave the viewer an experiential peek into how Mikey’s mind works. His focus is on himself until he notices something he wants. Then his attention shifts and is fixated on the new sparkling object.
The two of them begin to date, and soon enough, Mikey, in all his wisdom, gets the idea that Strawberry could be the next star of the adult film industry. He sees her as his ticket back into the business and daydreams about the perceived success it would bring him. Around the same time, Mikey meets his car-owning neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), whom he also manipulates into driving him around town. Mikey uses everyone around him for his own personal gain and then take no responsibility for the damage his actions cause. It’s this lack of responsibility that defines Mikey and Red Rocket as a film.
In all his movies Sean Baker casts mostly inexperienced actors or non-actors. Why does he do this? Well, you need to ask him, but I see it as a vital element of his overall style. Casting non-actors helps in fleshing out a world that is grounded in realism both in performance and aesthetic. I also believe it establishes an underlying “chilled” tone. I found watching Red Rocket to be relaxing; nothing feels forced because there is nothing to force. Moments play out in a natural, almost improvised way. Sean Baker isn’t the only director with this style, but I do find it refreshing as we usually expect to see highly-strung performances from professional actors.
Near the end of the film an unexpected event occurs that turns the story; it’s at this moment that Mikey’s self-absorbed nature is completely exposed. The event is sudden and takes place almost completely off-screen. Sean Baker focuses on the character’s reaction to the event rather than the event itself. I would imagine this was mainly due to budget constraints, but I personally loved the way it was executed. Again, it gave us a glimpse into how Mikey’s mind works. The argument could be made that we don’t see the event take place because Mikey is trying to block it out of his own memory rather than accepting responsibility for what happened. This type of filmmaking excites and inspires me as the filmmaker is finding creative solutions to express abstract ideas – which is not easy to do in a visual medium.
There were a handful of humorous moments sprinkled throughout the film. Sean Baker doesn’t seem to take his world or characters too seriously, despite them taking themselves seriously. It’s somewhat satirical. There were also some other interesting creative choices, such as including multiple scenes where snippets from 2016 US presidential election were playing in the background. I don’t know what the link is between this story and the 2016 election other than Texas being a historically republican state, but I’m sure there’s one I’m not seeing.
I enjoyed Red Rocket as a character study; I can appreciate the talent of writer/director Sean Baker. However, I didn’t come out the film with too much enthusiasm about what I had just seen, not because it was bad, but because it left me feeling somewhat empty inside. When you consider the emptiness in the lives of many of the characters in the film, it’s possible that my reaction was the intended one.
Written by Ben Worrall (January 2022)