Hannah Strong


Red Rocket – first-look review

Simon Rex is superbly cast in Sean Baker’s sparkling character study of a porn actor well past his pomp.

Is using a washed-up porn star who creates chaos wherever he goes as a metaphor for the state of the American nation too on the nose? Maybe – but Sean Baker doesn’t exactly deal in subtly. His work favours bright colours, outrageous dialogue and more than a little controversy, and his seventh feature, Red Rocket, is likely to generate further impassioned responses, despite a deviation in tone from the emotional pull of Tangerine and The Florida Project.

In the months leading up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Mikey Davies returns to his hometown of Texas City, Texas (population just under 50,000) and to his ex-wife Lexi and her mother Lil, who are less than enthusiastic about the reunion. After some sort of shenanigans in Los Angeles where he’s lived for the past 18 years, Mikey is washed up and looking for a place to crash. After some negotiation, he manages to take up residency on Lexi and Lil’s couch, and sets about trying to find a job.

Unfortunately Mikey’s past life as a porn star (going by the name Mikey Saber) is a barrier to employment. While Mikey isn’t ashamed of his career, his prospective employees all turn him down when he explains what he’s been doing since he left town. Running out of options, he turns to an old friend and starts selling marijuana to local skaters, strippers and oil workers. Soon enough he runs into 17-year-old Rylee (Suzanna Son), who goes by the name Strawberry. A mutual attraction develops.

This is where the sexual politics of Red Rock get a little sticky. As charming and affable as Mikey is, he’s also a man in his forties who begins a sexual relationship with a teenager. Although the age of consent is 17 in Texas (“Legal as an eagle!” Mikey exclaims proudly to his friend Lonnie) he does groom Strawberry, providing her with marijuana and encouraging her to shoot a sex scene with him. 

Mikey sees Strawberry as his ticket back to Los Angeles and the porn world, envisioning a future where they can take the industry by storm. Of course, things aren’t quite that simple; Mikey – who seems to possess whatever the opposite of the Midas touch is – is a selfish, seedy character who has no qualms about fucking other people (over) to get what he wants. It’s interesting to see Baker centre a protagonist with so few redeeming features, considering his past films are more balanced in terms of the choices characters make in increasingly desperate situations. 

But Mikey isn’t just Mikey; he’s America, stubborn and reckless and self-assured even when he has no right to be. His hubris is remarkable and frequently entertaining, sold with aplomb by Simon Rex whose natural comic talent shines through. He may also understand a thing or two about the fickle nature of the entertainment industry, having worked in porn at the start of his career before becoming mostly known for starring in three of the Scary Movie films. He’s a compelling motormouth lead, talking himself in and out of trouble; a regular snake oil salesman if ever there was one.

Red Rocket feels a little lighter in tone than Baker’s previous work, and as such doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance that we’ve come to expect since his star began to rise. Its two hour runtime also drags considering there’s relatively little payoff at the end (it may have the same love-it-or-loathe-it response as The Florida Project’s Disneyland scene). Still, there are some truly riotous moments, and as a character study on how one man’s awfulness permeates across everyone he meets, this is fascinating stuff.

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Published 15 Jul 2021

Tags: Cannes Red Rocket Sean Baker Simon Rex

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