Director: Sean Baker Starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Ethan Darbone, Judy Hill Running Time: 128 minutes
What strikes you first about Red Rocket is its setting. Our story takes place amongst the luscious greens & scorched ambers of rural Texas now sadly littered with terrible infrastructure. The horizon is punctuated by cooling towers & smoke stacks as they stain the deep blue sky above, while loud motorways stretch for miles casting shadows upon acres of marshland. Captured on 16mm, there is a real texture & definition to this land ensuring a level of authenticity you will always find in a Sean Baker film. It is here that we meet Mikey Saber.
Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a washed up porn star returning home in search of a new chapter to his story. Bruised & jaded, he arrives at the door of his estranged wife & mother-in-law begging for a place to stay and another chance to make things right. As the weeks go by, Mikey begins to ingratiate himself once more with the community he left behind, all until he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a local waitress, who he begins a relationship with. As time goes by, Mikey begins to draw up plans for his new life where Strawberry becomes his ticket back to fame & success leading him, once more, far away from his hometown.
It’s hard to say what happens after this point without ruining the movie but, needless to say, it slowly becomes clear why his return was not originally met with open arms. From the opening shot, Mikey carries with him a relentless positivity & charm (and equally relentless delusion) which seems to be steering him through these troubled times. And yet – like the factories that surround the land – he is not above stripping this community down for its resources and delivering himself back up to the top. A character like this who rides the razor’s edge between being likeable & scuzzy requires a superb actor who can deliver a masterful performance, and Red Rocket is very lucky it has that in Simon Rex.
Rex brings charisma & charm to Mikey and portrays a character who is convinced by every single word that he says, recruiting the audience on his side as a result. Cinema has long been fascinated with hustlers and the way they manipulate those around them, but very few movies find a way to include the audience in the swindle. Mikey can be funny & charming and easily convince those around him that his intentions are honest. Equally, when the script requires him to be, Rex can show Mikey as a callus & calculated individual, which assists the film in landing its darker moments when the veil begins to slip and he is revealed for who he truly is. In a cast filled with Texan locals & first-time actors hired for the authenticity they can lend to their scenes, it’s even more impressive that Simon Rex is able to stand beside them and be just as authentic & natural.
To those familiar with Sean Baker’s work, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his films are (a) filled with great, authentic performances & (b) beautifully shot: he clearly has a way with actors and knows how to fill a scene with detailed & colourful imagery. While Red Rocket undeniably has this in spades, I couldn’t help but drift away from it at times. To me, the location surrounding Mikey’s story had a story of its own to tell, one which never seems to be explored by Baker throughout the film. With the mechanisation of rural America used to dress every single shot of the film (you literally can’t escape it), it’s bewildering to me that Baker doesn’t try to explore it in any great detail.
The writer/director’s films have been accused of being a sort of ‘poverty tourism’ in the past (some would even go as far as to label it a safari!). While I personally don’t agree this is his intention, it’s hard to ignore how little he has to say about the issues affecting this movie’s setting when he insists on squeezing them into every single shot. This is made even worse by the rather on-the-nose nods towards the rise of Donald Trump in rural America – something I believe he wanted to explore through the theme of excessive media consumption, but never truly lands. It’s hard to comment on the filmmaker’s intentions and I’d highly recommend both Tangerine & The Florida Project where claims of tourism really couldn’t be made against him (in my opinion). However, throughout this movie, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a bigger story to tell and that the film didn’t know how to tell it.
If not the delicate dissection of modern rural America that it seemed like it was going to be, Red Rocket is, at least, a well-assembled, visually immaculate comedy-drama with superb performances at every turn, with a particularly superb Simon Rex leading the pack. If you had to see it for one reason, it should be for his performance.(3 / 5)
Red Rocket hits Irish cinemas on March 11th, 2022.
Red Rocket is reviewed as part of our coverage of this year’s Dublin International Film Festival – see more from us on this year’s DIFF HERE.