How much do you have to like a movie’s protagonist to like a movie? That’s a question that rattled around my head as I watched Red Rocket, a comedy drama from Sean Baker, the American indie king behind empathic gems Tangerine (2015) and The Florida Project (2017). In both those life-affirmingly humane masterpieces, Baker showcased marginalised characters whose lives were presented in rich, textured hues. However flawed they might have been, they were easy to engage with.
On its absurdist, slapstick surface, the antihero of Red Rocket is cut from similar cloth: an outsider with a survivor’s instinct and charisma to spare. Simon Rex is Mikey “Saber” Davies, a washed-up hustler who has been earning a living in the adult film industry in LA. Now it’s 2016 and he’s back in Texas City, bruised and banging on the door of his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mum, Lil (the late Brenda Deiss – one of the film’s many screen first-timers). “Why are you here?” they ask, prompting a scattershot cavalcade of self-justifying tall tales, all of which leave Mikey broke and homeless. But not for long. With his trademark toxic cocktail of insufferable charm and relentless selfishness, he has soon moved back in, assuring Lexi that “it’ll be like we’re still married”, to which she caustically replies: “We are still married.”
Armed with a bicycle that bizarrely makes him resemble Pee-wee Herman, Mikey sets himself up dealing weed for Leondria (Judy Hill), selling to the hard hats at the local refinery who get to the end of a working day and “want to kill themselves”. He also inveigles his predatory way into the affections of Raylee (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old (“I’ll be 18 in three weeks”) who works at the local Donut Hole and tells him: “Everybody calls me Strawberry.” Spying a ticket back to Hollywood, Mikey sets about grooming Raylee (who already has “a porn-star name”) into becoming his adult film paycheck protege. “That’s pretty impressive that in three weeks you convinced a girl to do porn,” enthuses neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) after Mikey brags: “I’ll have her shooting scenes by September.” No wonder Lexi accuses him of being a “suitcase pimp” – a porn industry term for a man who lives off female talent.
Baker’s movies have always been about location, location, location, and Red Rocket is no different. From the belching refinery that provides an omnipresent backdrop to the scuffed green lawns and DayGlo-coloured businesses (such as the tangerine-and-puce combo of the Donut Hole), scenery is front and centre. Time and again, cinematographer Drew Daniels – whose CV includes Trey Edward Shults’s paranoid horror It Comes at Night and broken-backed drama Waves – captures these characters as small figures in an ultrawide, oversaturated frame, engulfed by their surroundings. In one key scene the sound and vision of a passing train all but obliterates the dialogue, while the skin-crawling voice of Donald Trump provides background TV noise in a land beset by Maga billboards.
Through it all, Mikey’s self-serving, hyper-energetic patter rattles on – initially entertaining, but ever-more poisonous. Rex – an actor/rapper/comedian/model who apparently dabbled in porn in the 90s – does a terrific job of capturing Mikey’s creepy charm, showing us how he’s hustled his way through life in reliably unreliable form (“Nothing with you is unexpected,” says Lexi). But Mikey is also past his prime, popping blue pills to get it up, capable of intimacy in only the most performative fashion. As everyone around him discovers, he’s a Trumpy huckster who cares for nobody but himself.
As for Baker and regular co-writer Chris Bergoch, they refrain from judging their characters, observing the world from Mikey’s maniacally self-serving point of view even as comedy turns to queasiness and worse. When things get really nasty in Red Rocket, the audience is left unsure whether to laugh or groan. Indeed, I suspect that some viewers may be so seduced by Mikey that they won’t find it “nasty” at all. That’s an alarming thought, but one that suits a portrait of someone who takes the blame for nothing (“You did this, not me”), and who believes that “the universe is on my side”, whatever wreckage they may leave in their wake.