Red Rocket follows a charismatic, self-obsessed porn star’s unwanted return to his hometown and his ill-fated attempts to put his life back together.
After a falling out with a business partner in L.A. and left beat-up in the street, washed-up porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) returns to his hometown in Texas hoping to find a fresh start. When he shows up unannounced to his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil’s (Brenda Deiss) house, he’s pushed away but eventually negotiates his way to sleeping on the couch and promises to find a job quickly. Because he enjoyed a relatively successful porn career and is somewhat recognizable, Mikey is rejected from all the jobs he applies for, but he soon finds work selling weed for Leondria (Judy Hill), the mother of one of his high school classmates. Making enough money to support Lexi and Lil and getting back into their good graces, it seems like Mikey has changed his ways and genuinely wants to improve himself.
All that changes when he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a perky, soon to be 18-year-old girl who works at the local donut shop. She immediately catches his eye and after Mikey continues to frequent the donut shop, a relationship blooms between them despite their age difference and Mikey even crafts a false persona to hide the fact that he’s married and nearly broke. Soon, Mikey recognizes Strawberry’s potential to become a successful porn star and preys on her naivety and desperation to leave Texas, hatching a plan to return to L.A. with her to start his own porn production company. However not all goes to plan as the careless Mikey has to deal with all the messes he has created and one he just might not be able to charm his way out of.
Co-writer and director Sean Baker filmed Red Rocket in the fall of 2020. Despite being shot mid-pandemic, it creatively uses its small narrative scope and cast to spin a compelling contained story. Similar to his last feature, The Florida Project, Baker shot Red Rocket on film (16 mm this time), and the soft grainy look casts the desolate sprawl of middle-of-nowhere, Texas with an unseen beauty to its images of open highways and oil refineries. It’s easy to imagine a film this being shot on underlit crisp digital, but thankfully Baker’s commitment to shooting on film gives Red Rocket a signature look and feel that adds texture and character to its images.
At its core, Red Rocket is the story of a charismatic narcissist who charms his way in and out of all sorts of trouble, eventually causing whirlwinds of untold chaos as he carelessly brings down everyone around him. Shamelessly duplicitous yet oddly endearing and even convincing, Mikey is a thoroughly intriguing character and Simon Rex’s mesmerizing performance is the clear highlight of the film. Armed with a devilish grin and wordy mouth, Mikey is so charming, so infectious, and so good at his shtick that it’s not difficult to be fooled by his act of pretending to put his life back together even as we can see right through him.
In the background of Red Rocket are constant references to the 2016 election, from Trump yard signs to glimpses of the presidential debates on television. Baker isn’t trying to make a grand political statement, but instead highlighting a uniquely American archetype—the charismatic swindler, seen in figures like the hapless Mikey to exploitative porn producers to the man who swindled his way into the White House. Even in its small scale drama surrounding just a handful of characters, this microscopic tale poses a bigger picture surrounding it, cunningly and quietly exploring the role of this archetypal figure and the disastrous effects of egomania.
Mikey’s self-obsession extends even further, as the film is framed through his perspective. We always hear Mikey’s side of the story, such as when he constantly boasts about his career successes like “winning” three awards for oral sex performance—claiming that it was him, not the actual actresses performing the dirty work, that put in the real effort during those scenes. Even as the camera maintains its third-person perspective it still feels like it’s seeing the world through Mikey’s eyes—in one scene, Strawberry plays the piano and sings for Mikey—except the camera isn’t focused on her, it’s looking directly at him.
Even sex is filtered through Mikey’s lens—the sex scenes with him and Lexi are hilariously over the top and play like scenes from a porn flick. These moments are ridiculous and amusing, but they’re particularly revealing about Mikey and how he sees sex as just an act to fulfill himself. Meanwhile, Red Rocket doesn’t shy away from unashamedly sexualizing Strawberry, an underage girl, in several scenes. It’s a risky decision for the film to cast her under a predatory male gaze, and will no doubt court much controversy and criticism when the film gets a wider release. However, it’s a very deliberate creative decision that Baker handles with sufficient tact and it’s important to note that the film isn’t condoning Mikey, but instead forcing us into his perspective, giving no thought to the implications of his careless actions.
Unfortunately, Red Rocket’s small scope feels a bit too limiting within its own screenplay. With an unwieldy 128-minute runtime, the story feels like it’s being stretched a bit too far and especially in the third act, it feels like there’s too much drama thrown in to create more excitement. With such a small cast of characters and small scope, you easily get the impression that this would have been much more successful with a tighter runtime. While it never feels too long and the pacing sustains itself well enough, it does feel a bit tiring by the end, and similar to The Florida Project, its final scene clashes with the stylistic consistency of the rest of the film and feels a bit too abrupt and tonally jarring. Despite these flaws, Red Rocket remains an engaging piece of quarantine creativity boasting a memorable charismatic lead that, alone, makes it worth a watch.
Red Rocket premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on July 14, 2021. The film was released in US theaters December 3.