DIRECTOR: Sean Baker

CAST: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Marlon Lambert, Brittney Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone, Shih-Ching Tsou, Parker Bigham Brandy Kirl, Dustin Hart

RUNNING TIME: 128 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A washed-up porn star (Rex) returns to his Texas hometown where he embarks on a series of escapades…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Forget what I said in my Paris, 13th District review, because Red Rocket is the real movie that should have been called The Worst Person in the World.

Filmmaker Sean Baker, who as with his previous features directs, writes, produces and edits this film, has clearly shown keen interest over his films in the underserved corners of our society, whether it’s the transgender sex work community in Tangerine or the hotel-dwelling family lifestyle in The Florida Project. Their lives are undeniably trashy, but there is still something human operating underneath their souls; not so much with Red Rocket, which will have you simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by a lead character with almost zero redemptive qualities but also an undeniable charisma that’s powerful enough for you to understand why such a scumbag has gotten as far as he has in life.

This scumbag is Mikey (Simon Rex), who we first meet in bruised form as he’s on a bus with only $22 on his person, headed towards the Texas town he once swore he’d never return to. In a shock to only him, nobody really wants him around, especially not his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) with whom he shacks up with immediately upon arrival. Opportunities for him in this backwater town are scarce because, due to his prolific identity as a male performer in the pornography industry, nobody wants to hire him or even want to look him directly in the eye; and you can’t blame him, for Mikey constantly shows himself to be a manipulative, self-centred compulsive liar whose gift of the gab compels nearly everyone to do exactly what he wants, before he then discards them like toilet paper. However, Mikey senses a real chance to make it back into his industry after he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a young woman on the cusp of eighteen who works in a donut shop, but from Mikey’s perspective has the looks, charm and talent to make it in porn herself; thus begins a serious grooming exercise that will presumably land Mikey a firm standing back in Los Angeles, and finally give him cause to tell his hometown where it can go.

Movies about abhorrently unlikeable people like Mikey exist because while you may hate the person we’re all supposed to focus on, there is something in the filmmaking and the acting that still makes you interested in where his story is eventually going to go. As stated earlier, Sean Baker is the kind of filmmaker who likes to highlight the trashiest parts of our society, and Red Rocket represents his deepest dive into trashiness yet, taking us all over this barren and ugly landscape with giant oil refineries both heard and seen in the background, as well as giant billboards with Trump’s campaign slogan plastered all over it (the film is set in 2016, during the build-up of that election). The people who occupy this town aren’t necessarily any better than Mikey, as some of them can be just as rude, self-serving and obnoxious as the protagonist himself can be, and Baker’s handheld fly-on-the-wall filmmaking style captures everyone’s scummy nature like it’s a slightly higher-art version of a reality show, including big aggressive zoom-ins on characters’ faces which are always on the knife-edge of full-on exploitation, which is amplified by Baker’s decision to cast inexperienced locals in major supporting roles, adding to the authenticity of this unkempt world. Baker’s style is one that, like his previous features, has the capacity to be extremely divisive, and you can certainly make the argument that there is perhaps too much of it in Red Rocket (it runs on a very loose narrative with mild focus on actual plot or character development, ergo it may be seen as a style-over-substance movie by some viewers), but it’s grounded enough to visually suck you in despite your own judgement.

Then there’s Mikey himself, who is every negative connotation in the book, and yet he is still a compelling character because of two core components. The first is Simon Rex; the performer, perhaps best known to audiences for his appearances in the Scary Movie franchise, is exceptional here, almost too realistically getting into the mind-frame of an absolute disgrace of a human being, one that is constantly making things up to appear much gracefully in other people’s eyes, makes false promises to everyone unfortunate enough to get too close to him, and even when he is directly involved in major incidents he immediately removes himself from the equation to let someone else take the fall for him. Rex’s natural charisma, however, is paramount to us understanding why others would be so intrigued by this toxic individual, since his mile-a-minute motormouth and supposed knowledge of the way his personal universe works entices people to accept him into their lives, only to get royally screwed over at his earliest opportunity. The second component, and arguably the most important, is Baker’s use of *NSYNC’s hit single “Bye Bye Bye”; now, you might be wondering what constitutes a pop boy band single to serve as a major backbone for this film, and the answer to that is… well, have you HEARD this song? Aside from it being a fun little bop, the lyrics to it actually do match up with Mikey’s fractured mindset where this song apparently plays on a loop (example: “I’ve lived for you and me/And now I really come to see/That life would be much better once you’re gone”, which ties into how he sees people like his own wife Lexi as opportunists who similarly discard him once he’s no longer useful to them). The unlikely mix of the boy band song and the performance by the guy who parodied 8 Mile in Scary Movie 3 makes this character far more compelling in motion than he is on paper, and for that I do have a good deal of respect for it.

Those that watch Red Rocket will surely have divisive opinions, and for perfectly understandable reasons – maybe the nasty and soulless nature of this lead character will be too much for some, while others might not necessarily get into this filmmaking style – but no matter what you think of this guy, the way he and his story are presented make him one of those people you absolutely hate to love as much as you love to hate.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Red Rocket is a trashy but mildly compelling character study, with Sean Baker’s stylish filmmaking and Simon Rex’s incredibly dedicated lead turn leaving you fascinated by its morally reprehensible protagonist, though it is certain to be divisive due to its overly-light narrative and overall lack of sympathy.

Red Rocket will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 11th March 2022 – click here to find a screening near you!

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