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Sean Baker’s ‘Red Rocket’ tells a story about America that is both wonderful and horrifying

Simon Rex stars as a down-on-his-luck huckster who can't seem to get over his nostalgic view of the past. Sound familiar?

Red Rocket features two triumphant returns. First, Sean Baker, who last directed The Florida Project from 2016 and Tangerine not long before that. After 5 years, he’s returned with another feature-length film through A24, and discounting the quality of his latest effort, it’s fantastic to see him back.

Second, Simon Rex, who stars in Red Rocket and is a force of “where has this guy been?!” nature in one of the year’s most remarkable comeback roles. Rex, of course, was a prolific personality back in the 90s and 2000s with his career on MTV and roles in the Scary Movie franchise as well as TV series such as Baywatch, What I Like About You, and more. The man was simply everywhere, though he really got his start as a pornographic actor. Around 2007, Rex transitioned into a career as a musical rapper, likely springboarded from his parody of 8 Mile in Scary Movie 3, and thus became known as Dirt Nasty, so that’s where he’s been if you’re curious.

Looking at the story of Red Rocket, in which we examine a man in his 40s and well past his prime as an entertainer, it’s easy to see how Baker and his long-time collaborator and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch likely geared many elements of this screenplay around Rex’s life, while still preserving the general construct of their original idea. When we meet Mikey Saber, played by Rex, we find out quickly that he’s a washed up adult film star who’s left Los Angeles and returned to his hometown, Texas City, in order to lay low and recoup his recent setbacks. But coming-of-age, feel-good, “return to your roots” film this is not.

Mikey quickly attempts to charm his estranged wife, Lexi (played by Bree Elrod), just so he can get a place to stay for a few days, which it turns into a few weeks, you know the drill. And it isn’t long before he’s working the local community again, almost as if he never left. There’s a purposeful recurrence of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” likely intended to help remind the audience—though they don’t need it—that Rex is a relic of a recent, but nevertheless bygone era of strong, masculine personalities who once effortlessly dominated culture.

It’s odd because Mikey arguably begins as a quasi-sympathetic character. One we don’t approve of, morally, but root for because he’s presented as an underdog, immediately disgusting and obviously dishonest as he is. But the movie methodically removes all those false, condoling assumptions about a man who clearly feels unduly entitled to a level of success and prosperity in a country like America. He’s a pathological liar and his politics are only geared toward his own self, but he’s quick to recognize tactful or intentionally abrasive ways in which he can weaponize his charm and bravado, swaying just enough people as his own personal sycophants who will be far more loyal to him than he would ever be to them.

Some of you might be picking up on what I’m hinting at here, and I promise it’s not a reach if you watch the film. Baker clearly made this film in reaction to the Trump presidency, as the film takes place during the summer of 2016, and he even flows in several direct references to that infamous campaign and Trump’s first major pitch for the presidency.

The film never directly comments on what the people around Texas City think of Trump or Clinton; thankfully, there’s no dated pontificating or cheap, layup dialogue by the actors as soon as Trump gets mentioned (“Oh, that guy will never win!”). But he sticks in the air like a virus infecting or perhaps awakening an existing tick in Mikey to be that same level of showman who knows he’s full of you know what, but he’s targeting the truly gullible and innocent who don’t know any better or simply choose not to.

Many films have been made about the last 5 years of American politics, but Red Rocket could very well be the first great one. It does it in a way that doesn’t unfairly malign or glamorize the people caught up in the swell of populism and reactionary politics. Instead, it brings forth a sense of location, time, and place and lets the audience fill in what they think. It’s political without being political. By the end of Red Rocket, it feels like we’ve spent months in this small town, but it turns out only weeks have passed. We’ve been there for just one moment in time, but you can practically map out the entire location and its landmarks by memory.

That’s one of Baker’s many gifts as a filmmaker, in that he can pull back the curtain on the fringes, on the undervalued margins of American life, whether they be the dilapidated gas stations most movies never bother to include, or the day-to-day struggles of of sex workers. Comparing Red Rocket to Tangerine and The Florida Project, you get the sense that this is a culmination of Baker and Bergoch’s entire creative ethos as modern filmmakers, complete with its dedication to centering mostly unknown actors, actors who aren’t established professionals who miraculously hold their own against Rex at his absolute best.

Needless to say, I adored Red Rocket. Not for its assumed politics or how it reminded me of things I believe or confirmed any of my own biases as an American. Far from it. It felt like a wave of understanding and relief to see a film by someone who simply gets it. And the fact that many different people who likely disagree with each other on a lot of different things can watch this and come out of it with that same feeling, without it being vague, generic, or wishy-washy to the point of meaningless moralizing.

This is what films should do. They should make us understand one another better and more boldly, while still providing thoroughly satisfying entertainment as a rightful priority. Red Rocket, to that end, is absolutely hilarious, yet never at the expense of these people. It doesn’t gawk at anyone, but it does have loads of fun bringing everyone into its fun.

The film has both a wistful and serious tone depending on the nature of each scene. For example, there’s quite a lot of grooming and exploitation that happens in the film between Mikey and a 17-year-old girl (Suzanna Son) he wants to turn into the next big porn star. It’s truly upsetting to watch, but that’s certainly the point. And the movie never falls into the disgusting territory of making light of Mikey’s actions. But it also doesn’t redundantly wag its finger at the man, either. It simply exposes him, full frontal, for all to see. It’s up to you to decide if this is really the kind of man you want, the kind of country you want, the kind of society you want.

EXTRA CREDITS

  • Not enough good things can be said about Drew Daniels’ cinematography, here. The movie was shot on 16mm film and you can feel the sensory detail of every frame, down to the heat sweat. Yes, this is a run-down area stricken by poverty and desperation, but it’s shot like a real place, where vibrancy, even the hopeful kind, can be found just about anywhere. Even if it is fleeting.
  • There is a prominent dog in this movie, which might raise alarm bells for anyone who knows the slang meaning behind a “red rocket,” which I won’t get into. Don’t worry, there’s nothing graphic like that in the movie, though you can expect plenty of sexual content and adult language.
  • One last note about Sean Baker. I think this man is the future of cinema and will go on to inspire many in the next generation of superb filmmakers. He’s that good.

Red Rocket opens in theaters starting December 10.

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