Red Rocket is the latest news bulletin from Scuzzville USA by Sean Baker, who gave us bitching transexual sex workers in Tangerine (the one “shot on an iPhone”) and the travails of motel-dwelling poor white trash in The Florida Project.
Both of those flirted with poverty porn and so does Red Rocket, more literally this time with the story of busted porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who returns to his Texas hometown to re-ingratiate himself with his his estranged wife Lexi, who lives with her mother in however you designate a dwelling that’s one up from a trailer.
Constant background noise, or something big and ugly hovering at the edge of the frame, seems to be a feature of Baker’s films, and in Red Rocket it’s a gigantic chemical refinery providing sound, motion and regularised human activity in what would otherwise be a fairly static town of welfare handouts.
The first scenes set the tone and introduce us to the main characters – Mikey, arriving on a bus with nothing but the clothes he’s dressed in, knocking on the door of his wife’s mother’s house and getting the sort of dead-eyed, who-the-fuck reception it’s hard to deal with if you’re anyone other than Mikey, a born hustler with a mouth in constant motion.
They’re all great performances – the task of playing the snaggle-toothed, semi-whacked-on-meds Lil going to Brenda Deiss, a newcomer in her 60s (I’m guessing). Daughter Lexi, undoubtedly called Sexy Lexi at school, played by Bree Elrod as a mixture of the hopeful and the forlorn. And Mikey himself, around whom the entire film is built, mouth flapping, deep as a puddle, eyes alive for a main chance, clothes on and off, is a remarkably unsavoury yet charming turn by Rex, who in his youth did indeed do some porn, and has the sort of buff body you’d expect along with the professional eagerness of the camera-ready performer. Simon Rex has to be a porn name, yes?
Slightly more familiarly structured than The Florida Project, there is a dangle dropped into the middle of Red Rocket, a will-he/won’t-he opportunity for Mikey to change his ways – or not – in the shape of Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the sweet girl who works at the donut shop who Mike imagines might be his way back into the porn biz. But surely he isn’t going to take this cute 17-year-old, corrupt her and ruin his one shot at redemption as he does so?
In the meantime, while Baker teases us with the proposition of Faust and Mephistopheles as one character, we’re introduced to some of the town’s other inhabitants, all also brilliantly played with character to the max – local mini-drugs baron Leondria (Judy Hill), and her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez), with a face like a raised middle finger, next-door neighbour and hopeless sap Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), who’s useful to the mercenary Mikey because he has a car, Ms Phan (Shih-Ching Tsou), owner of the donut shop, who says barely a word but her reluctance to make eye contact with Mikey speaks volumes. All are newcomers, apart from Tsou, who is also Baker’s longtime producer (and also had small roles in Tangerine and The Florida Project). There is no bad acting in this film. Baker should run masterclasses for other directors in how to pull performances of this quality out of people, some of whom have never acted before and will never do it again.
Like The Florida Project, Red Rocket seems to last longer than its (2hr 10mins) running time. Tangerine’s running time of around 90 minutes would be ample to tell Mikey’s story, and there’s also the suspicion (also there in The Florida Project) that Baker doesn’t like his characters that much. In Tangerine those were miserable, bitching, flaky transexual sex workers but they were warm and loveable with it.
But there’s still lots to like, not least Baker’s colour choices – acid greens, pastel pinks, warm oranges – the road to damnation in Red Rocket is a pretty one. The title is apparently slang for a dog’s dick.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022