Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), apparently the best pornstar you’ve never heard of, always has a plan. No matter how roughed up he may be or how desperate he sounds as he promises you that he does in fact have the money to pay next month’s rent, Mikey’s main talent may not be in shagging on camera (even though a couple of Adult Film awards may back that claim up) but in being able to sell honey to a bee. In Sean Baker’s latest entry detailing the goings-ons in another cast away spot of America (this time in the sweat filled days and mischievous nights of Texas City, Texas), RED ROCKET, the wicked that go unpunished aren’t demons, serial killers, or crooked politicians but scrappy pornstars looking to make a quick buck.
In his previous entries — namely the shot-on-an-iPhone TANGERINE and the wondrously childlike THE FLORIDA PROJECT — writer and director Sean Baker managed to always find lovable blue collar underdogs making do with the lowdown circumstances they found themselves in. With those entries, Baker posited that clear motto of not judging a book by its cover because underneath the rough and less than ideal look of his protagonists, there was a beating (and pleading) human heart beneath it all. Mikey Saber, Baker’s newest protagonist who finds himself down low in a down low town, has a heart probably, but one that is filled with the need for self-satisfaction and gain. Simply put, the dude’s a major dickhead. Throughout it’s swaying 2-hour runtime, Mikey fails to make one good-natured decision, instead dragging himself and others down into the grime that fills the oil-town’s air.
And yet, even as Saber runs amok in a small town, turning promises into lies and taking advantage of anybody and everybody he comes across, a fascination emerges from such a distasteful character. Most of this comes courtesy of the go-for-broke performance Simon Rex puts on, utilizing his dastardly smile and weaponized pleas of desperation to lull his marks and the audience themselves into believing that a man who actively pursues a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl can maybe figure things out. Of course, as Baker and writing partner in crime Chris Bergoch detail, Mikey loses morality amongst the potential for another shot at quick money and whatever little fame he once had back in California. For once, Baker’s digging into the so-called “dirt” of America doesn’t reveal any diamonds this time around, just pure black ooze. Interestingly, as Mikey runs around talking his way into and out of various situations, a very real life Mikey is running amok on the television screens of Texas City in the form of former first man Donald Trump, who we see is in the midst of his 2016 Presidential Election. RED ROCKET doesn’t go further than showing the former television star turned sordid world leader on tv screens (rambling rants and insults and all) but there isn’t much else needed to draw a humorous and depressing connection between two hustlers somehow getting away with their misdeeds.
As with his other works, Baker isn’t playing judge or jury here with his characters or his setting or even his political imagery, instead letting the naturalness of his world speak to the constant injustices that happen without much repercussions. Baker, despite his focus on a less than savory protagonist, still manages to find a unique magical beauty to the decrepit Texas City, a town surrounded by oil refineries and poverty that, thanks to Drew Daniels wistful camera, bring all the its rough strewn pieces together to form a soft colorful painting of small town America. Its inhabitants too reveal a warm center despite their less than Hollywood appearances and toiling way of life. Around Mikey appear a stable of Texas City residents who only want to help Mikey get back on his feet, ranging from Mikey’s ex Lexi (Bree Elrod), Lexi’s mom and landlord (Brenda Deiss), to even Mikey’s old time drug supplier (Judy Hill). Each offers what little they have to support an old town friend, but in that Mikey only sees suckers for him to play, which he is more than willing to do. The wildcard of RED ROCKET’s initial milling about vibe arrives in the 16-year-old Mikey soon falls for: Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a young girl who looks to be just another lamb for Mikey to take advantage of, only for the film to hint that the girl may have intentions of her own.
The relationship between Strawberry and Mikey heads into its obvious and unsettling results but Baker and co. dive into this train wreck of a relationship and sit in it, allowing audiences to watch a man continue down a road to damnation. As Strawberry, Ms. Son brings an authentic air of youthful naivete nonetheless pestered by the same mischievousness that Mr. Rex callously employs throughout. For better or worse, thanks to these two assured performances, the relationship between Strawberry and Mikey feels legitimately plausible in the most tasteless of ways. Even as it becomes the crux for the film’s final act, which skips and wallops through one embarrassing event after the next, Baker still retains his tendency for letting his films feel like they’re simply floating along to their conclusions; it does lead to some moments where one wonders just what the hell this is all for but Baker brings it all together with a surprisingly ambiguous ending that nonetheless pushes the idea of bad men never learning from their mistakes.
RED ROCKET offers no answers really by its final needle-drop, just observations. Through the eyes of Baker and his team, any small, begotten town of America has its charms and beauty and heart but tragically there also lies an unyielding darkness, whether in the form of poverty or in the sweaty smile of a former pornstar. With his latest, Baker grapples with the idea of whether good nature or selfish ambitions reside in the crevices of America. As RED ROCKET tells it, whether through Mikey or Trump’s sparse appearances, the country of the land of the free may be plagued by rot.