Red Rocket is the newest film from director, writer and editor (among other things) Sean Baker, after his delightful The Florida Project back in 2017. While both films are set in the trash underbelly of America though, Red Rocket is very different in tone due to ditching a loveable main character in favour of one of the worst people I have ever seen depicted in a film. This character is Mikey, a former porn star who returns to Texas to live with his ex-wife (herself also a former porn star) due to his career in Los Angeles imploding. This return is both unannounced and unwelcome, but he returns regardless into the town he once called home.
Once settled onto his mother-in-law’s sofa, it is fair to say that Mikey isn’t exactly being a model citizen. After a brilliant montage in which he spends his numerous job interviews explaining the seventeen year hole on his CV (“Google me”, he encourages his potential employers, with a twinkle in his eye), Mikey falls back into his old job dealing weed and sets about befriending any of the locals who are vulnerable enough to believe his lies. These all lead Mikey to the Donut Hole, a donut shop where Mikey meets a girl named Strawberry, who turns 18 in three weeks. In her, he sees potential. He sees a dream. He sees his possible re-entry into the very industry that sent him sprawling back to Texas. And so, he is willing to do whatever terrible thing it takes to make his return happen, careening through Baker’s brilliant script without a single compassionate gesture or thought for others. The only question is, when will the crash happen?
Red Rocket is a hangout movie starring the worst person you’ve ever met.
The script is one that largely isn’t plot motivated, which the lack of details in my description hopefully clued you in to. For a large amount of the runtime, Red Rocket feels like a hangout movie starring the worst person you’ve ever met. Fortunately, thanks to Baker’s script, it’s an incredibly funny hangout. Whether in the awkwardness of Mikey attempting to weave another lie or an extended monologue about Mikey’s resemblance to Paul Walker in The Fast and The Furious (which I obviously cackled at very loudly), Red Rocket is predominantly a comedy and a really funny one at that. The comedic elements become essential as the film moves forward, as Mikey commits worse and worse acts. I spent most of the third act in an agonisingly anxious state, which was thankfully remedied somewhat by the humour. Never remedied enough to make the audience forget what Mikey was doing, but enough to keep us on-board long enough to get to a terrific needle drop moment in the finale.
As with Sean Baker’s other films, the cast in here is largely filled with non-professional actors, although lead actor Simon Rex is a notable exception. You see, what you may not know is that in the real world, Rex is (or was) an actual porn star, an actor “gifted” in ways that your typical Hollywood star is not expected to be. Whether Rex used his experience of this industry to help fuel the dirtbag character of Mikey is unclear, but what is clear is that he is a totally magnetic presence on screen. I always find it difficult to work out with actors I’m not familiar with if they’re great at embodying their character or they simply aren’t working with any expectations on my part, but I know Rex is great because even as his character was doing worse and worse things to the people around him, I couldn’t stop watching. He brilliantly embodies the kind of person you would never want to meet but can’t help gawking at on screen. I hope he has cause to make space in his awards cabinet this awards season, adding some prestigious awards next to his no doubt beloved AVN trophies.
While a large amount of the watchability of Red Rocket can certainly be attributed to Rex’s swinging performance, I’m also a huge fan of the cinematography of the film. Baker has turned to new collaborator Drew Daniels for this aspect of the film, whose previous work on the sumptuous Waves has clearly helped pave the way here. While the beautiful (and I do mean genuinely beautiful) look at the trashy side of America is carried over from The Florida Project, in which characters are cast in long shots against boldly coloured and brilliantly unremarkable buildings, it’s a new sense of kineticism here I love, which was something Daniels did so well with Waves. In this case specifically, I’m talking about zooms. I know that sounds like such a specific thing to bring up, but it adds so much personality to Red Rocket. Zooms are used as punchline, as crunching realisation, as visual metaphor for the perpetual motion machine that is Mikey. They are like raisins in the cookie of the film, scattered throughout and a soft treat among the crunch.
Baker also has more treats up his sleeve for the audience, those sleeves being in the outfit of the job of editor. It’s always great to see a director who can genuinely consider themselves as auteur from spinning so many plates on a project and it’s even greater when said plate spinning works brilliantly. Editing style is typically broken down between inter- and intra-scene editing, both of which Baker excels at. The intra-scene editing is slow, the film consisting of longer than average takes, but Baker knows when to hold on a moment and when to make it fleeting enough that the next shot feels like an exciting leap forward. Likewise, the inter-scene editing is brilliant, reminding me of a slightly flashier version of the editing style in Greta Gerwig’s films. Baker will often use editing to blend the same action across two different temporal planes, showing inhalation on a cigarette in one location before cutting to show exhalation on a different cigarette on a different place. This creates a disorienting effect that works perfectly for the film, scrambling your sense of time and place. We don’t know where or when we are, only that we are riding wildly on Mikey’s coattails. Of all the brilliant things to single out in this film, I think the editing may be the most brilliant.
[Mikey] is a scumbag, through and through, but a compelling scumbag for sure. I loved following him.
I think a lot of people will hate Red Rocket. Not much happens for a large part of the film and a lot of the things that do happen are Mikey committing criminal offences of various levels of seriousness. I, however, do not care if a protagonist is likable or not, I care for the ride and what a ride Sean Baker has given us. Setting the film in 2016 gives us more than enough clues of the kind of world we’re entering into, through a shockingly effective evocation of the period (2016 period piece is a concept that makes me feel prematurely 50 though) and by the end we need no more clues as to who it is we’re spending time with. Mikey is a scumbag, through and through, but a compelling scumbag for sure. I loved following him, though I didn’t feel sorry to say bye bye bye when, after a long time coming, Mikey’s time finally came.