One of the reasons I loved Sean Baker’s previous film, The Florida Project, was how much empathy it had for impoverished Americans. By taking the viewpoint of a young girl who didn’t completely understand how dire her circumstances were, Baker was able to hammer home the totality of her destitution and vivacity in the face of that tragic world. Baker’s latest, Red Rocket, takes place in a similar setting, but this time it’s from the view of a schemer who thinks he has everything figured. On the one hand, it makes for an entertaining experience with Simon Rexlighting up the screen as a fast-talking dirtbag who leaves a trail of wreckage in his wake. But on the other hand, this time Baker feels more like a voyeuristic interloper with less empathy for these people. They no longer have any nuance, and it leaves the overall experience feeling sour.
Mikey (Rex) has returned to his small Texas town after working for the past 17 years as a porn star in California. As Mikey takes a two-day bus ride back to Texas with bruises on his face, it’s clear came back because he had no other choice. Of course, in Mikey’s view, he’s always the hero of the story and everyone else is a villain, but now he needs the assistance of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), and while he promises to contribute to the rent, he has trouble finding a job with his porn career hanging over him. He returns to selling weed for Leondria (Judy Hill) and has some success at it, but then his eye turns to the 17-year-old donut shop worker Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Mikey quickly falls for the young girl and charms her, and it’s not long before he sees her as a ticket back into the porn industry.
The movie belongs to Rex, who explodes off the screen with a boundless charm. We buy Mikey both as someone who could sell anything and yet buys his own hype most of all. If you listen to what Mikey’s saying, he’s insufferable. He can’t stop reliving his past glories, denigrating anyone he met along the way, always painting himself as the victim, and using everyone he meets. He’s reprehensible, and yet Rex makes him constantly watchable. It’s not so much that Mikey is ever sympathetic as much as he’s entertaining. He’s a born salesman, and while he lacks a conscience or any introspection, he knows how to make himself the center of attention. To make Mikey a captivating figure for the film’s entire runtime makes Rex’s performance one of the best of the year.
At times it feels like Baker is making Mikey into a Donald Trump allegory, but it doesn’t quite connect. The film is set in 2016 and will occasionally include bits from Trump’s rallies, and obviously there are shared qualities between the two men such as their shamelessness and bravado as well as their exploitation of the white working class. But it’s a flimsy comparison that only rests on a group of characteristics rather than looking at the larger picture. While a one-to-one comparison isn’t required, the larger point Baker seems to be making is how the people who surround Mikey could easily be taken in by someone with a big personality, and that seems like a reductive and simple view of the factors at play (for example, there’s nothing about Mikey that’s particularly nativist or race-baiting other than his white obliviousness and selfishness).
It doesn’t help that the characters surrounding Mikey don’t feel like real people, or at the very least have been reduced into nothing more than a 5-second talking head you’d see on a local news report. There’s not much depth to Lexi, Lil, or Mikey’s “friend” (who’s really more of someone to absorb Mikey’s rambling monologues) Lonnie (Ethan Darbone). Everyone exists solely in Mikey’s orbit but without much of an internal life. Maybe that’s the point that Baker wanted to make—that a figure like Mikey wipes out everyone who surrounds him, and he blocks out any attention they would merit, but the way it plays in Red Rocket is that these impoverished figures no longer really count. They’re stock characters in The Mikey Show, and that’s a difficult balance to manage when you want to buy this as a real world even if it’s through the eyes of a charlatan. That gives the overall film an exploitative feeling rather than something like The Florida Project where even if there was a character like Halley making bad choices, you could see where she was coming from. That understanding doesn’t really exist in Red Rocket.
While I wish Red Rocket has more empathy for its supporting players, it does work in putting us more in the shoes of someone like Mikey, who doesn’t view these surrounding figures as real people anyway. Everyone is a means to an end. Lexi and Lil are a means for a place to stay. Lonnie is a means to have someone to listen. Strawberry is a means for sex and perhaps a return back into the porn industry. But just because Mikey doesn’t see them as real people, that doesn’t mean we have to share that understanding. Rex makes Red Rocket an entertaining ride, but at some point you need something more than just a scumbag’s sales pitch.
Red Rocket opens in limited release on December 10th.