Red Rocket (2021)

Sean Baker | 2hr 8min

Red Rocket unfolds over a few weeks set in the summer of 2016, though we don’t need time stamps to tell us this. It is clear enough from the MAGA billboards populating this industrial Texan town, and the television excerpts playing out moments from those Republican and Democratic National Conventions where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton secured their parties’ presidential nominations. Politics is never discussed by any of its characters, though there is a parallel tension in Mikey Saber’s invasion of this working class region. This is his hometown, but he has since shed his Southern accent and sensibilities ever since moving to Los Angeles to find fame as a porn star, and now as he returns with nothing else to fall back on, he sticks out as an unabashed oddity. This is a man on a steady path of self-destruction, though much like the rest of America in 2016, he just doesn’t know it yet.

Sean Baker’s first step outside the realm of neorealist cinema that Tangerine and The Florida Project rigidly abided by is not that huge a leap given the improvisational style of the dialogue and performances, as well as his documentary-style of handheld camerawork. Shot on 16mm with the sort of film grain that gives a rough texture to every shot and that perfectly melds with the natural lighting, Red Rocket is infused with an authenticity that finds the melancholy beauty in the rows of transmission towers, industrial buildings, abandoned storefronts, and empty concrete lots spread all throughout Texas City. To Mikey though, it is a rundown wasteland towards which he holds a quiet disdain, using his boisterous Californian charm to manipulate ex-lovers, neighbours, and strangers into doing his bidding, all with one goal in mind – to get out of this hellhole and back to Los Angeles.

As shameless as this Trumpian con artist often is, the rowdy performance which Simon Rex delivers draws us in with horrified fascination. Mikey’s shtick is transparent to anyone who isn’t a bright-eyed idealist, but just like so many of these characters, we can’t help but hang around and indulge him a little just to see what happens. He carries his history of adult film awards like credentials that will earn immediate respect, and not long after arriving back in Texas he convinces himself that he has found his way back into the good graces of the Hollywood porn industry through a 17-year-old donut shop worker.

Strawberry’s relative naivety makes her a prime target for his grooming. Naivety should not be taken to mean stupidity though, as she proves herself to be more perceptive than Mikey could have ever guessed, even if there is a lack of maturity in her understanding of the world beyond Texas City. The pastel cottage which she lives in stands out in this industrial landscape almost as much as Mikey himself, though even more surprising is her hidden musical talent that adds another layer of tragedy to her exploitation.

The tune she performs on her electric piano is “Bye Bye Bye” by The Backstreet Boys, but this isn’t the only time the piece of music makes an appearance in Red Rocket. This is the one song that makes up the film’s soundtrack, manifesting in different variations that run an undercurrent of humour in its contrast to this stark environment. As such, it also becomes a perfect anthem for Mikey’s show business antics, right up until it spitefully turns on him in the last few minutes of the film.

The hypocrisy of this man who holds anything of substance with such little regard is astounding, as while he is happy to lie and bend truths to his own will, he will also happily chastise those he catches out doing the same, asserting his own moral disgust. Though Baker remains committed to the social realism of the piece, his satire is painted out with great detail and humour in these moments, right down to Mikey’s patriotically star-spangled joints.

Red Rocket may initially feel like a jump back in time to an era when western civilisation didn’t know what was about to hit it, but just as we do not see the outcome of the 2016 election hinted at in the film, we are also led to contemplate where Mikey goes after reaching an all-time low. If the past six years are anything to go off though, we can trust that even after suffering the worst kind of humiliation, he we still continue to find new people to exploit, and news depths to plunge.

Red Rocket is currently playing in theatres.

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