REVIEW: Red Rocket (Film Fest 919)
“Blessed” is a word that has changed considerably in use over the years. What used to be a genuine indicator of good fortune or luck has quickly become, to some, a word that signifies privilege, to the point that saying “#blessed” has become a punchline for the most out-of-touch among us. Mikey (Simon Rex), the main character in Sean Baker’s latest foray into working class America, Red Rocket, is very blessed indeed. In fact, he lets everyone around him know it—over and over and over.
Red Rocket follows the not-so-triumphant return of Mikey Saber, a modestly famous pornstar, to his small Texas town. Having burned almost every bridge he can in the adult film industry, he’s come back to Texas City to reconnect with his wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and bide his time selling weed to construction workers until he can make his next move. During that time, he reconnects with his neighbor and former childhood acquaintance, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), as well as the not-yet-18-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a girl who works at the local donut shop that Mikey soon finds himself infatuated with.
Mikey in this film is a character not dissimilar from Howie in the Safdie Brothers’ 2019 hit Uncut Gems, in the sense that he is an absolute wrecking ball of a human. Mikey is the type of guy that, like Howie, cannot help himself from pushing his own luck in the pursuit of chasing the next high—except in Mikey’s case, that high takes the form of an underage girl instead of an Ethiopian jewel.
Red Rocket’s leading man somehow manages to be deplorable, charming, disgusting, funny, predatory, and aloof all at the same time, and the balancing act only works through the sheer commitment of Simon Rex. In Red Rocket, Rex gives us cinema’s next great degenerate, a pitch-perfect embodiment of the most entitled and narcissistic type of man that America has to offer. It’s a wondrous performance, with Rex using his entire body (and the assistance of Nsync’s hit song “Bye Bye Bye”) to bring this dirtbag to life. Mikey is a detestable man, but through Rex’s very physical and perfectly timed performance—the man is a master at slipping in a punchline at just the right moment—you almost start to believe he can balance all the spinning plates he’s holding. Almost.
The rest of the film’s cast are no joke either, with Suzanna Son proving to be particularly revelatory. She manages to play a character both innocent and deeply aware of her hold over Mikey, leading to some incredibly playful interactions—with consequences that she is just a touch too naive to grasp. Up until the film’s final moments, she keeps you guessing whether she’s as smart as she lets on or if she’s just another girl hopelessly caught in the downward spiral of Mikey’s orbit.
Red Rocket’s performances and script are matched by the film’s gorgeous and sumptuous cinematography, capturing the rustic beauty of post-industrial America on 16mm film. Baker and cinematographer Drew Daniels capture Texas in such a way that the slipshod nature of its left-behind community feels beautiful in the sunset—when the film stops to follow Mikey riding his bike through barren streets past rundown gas stations, Baker succeeds at presenting another textured and grounded portrait of working class America that beautifully offsets its crazy story.
Red Rocket is a hedonistic and hilarious journey through rural America that also manages to interrogate the idea of American exceptionalism—an ideal that Mikey thoroughly embodies and lives by. Erotic in the most grimy and deplorable ways, it nevertheless rises to create a film that will stick with you after the credits roll. Its wicked performances, hilarious script, and beautiful cinematography coalesce to present us with one of the timeliest films of the year, wrapped up with an American flag rolling paper and reeking of sweat. You’ll feel blessed to have seen it.