'Red Rocket' review: Something wicked is deep in the heart of Texas City
'N Sync has never been so gleefully seedy.
(Except in the 2000 cyber-sex ode "Digital Get Down," but that's a deep cut for my other 30-somethings.)
Behold "Red Rocket," the latest down-on-the-ground feature from director Sean Baker, which ensconces "Bye Bye Bye" at the thematic heart of its outrageous story. You might know Baker best from "The Florida Project," his 2017 film about a troubled tyke making the shadows of Kissimmee her playground. He shot to prominence for the (far better, I think) 2015 movie "Tangerine," a Christmas-set tale of a transgender sex worker in Hollywood, all shot on iPhones.
Baker is known for casting from street encounters and social media; he often fills his cinematic worlds, always immaculately envisioned, with unknown performers whom he and his collaborators pluck from the real world instead of a stack of headshots. It's a technique that's helped Baker garner plaudits for realism in his slice-of-life work.
Those slices, though, are never nice, neat triangles. With "Red Rocket," Baker serves up yet another outrageous trip into a place that usually doesn't get movies made about it: Texas City.
Mikey Saber (played by Simon Rex) is a washed-up porn star whose reputation was never all that clean to begin with. After a stroke of bad luck, he returns to his Texas hometown on the Gulf Coast seeking a place to crash and lick his wounds. The sanctuary he picks, since he doesn't really have any other options, is the home of his estranged wife Lexi (theater actress Bree Elrod, who gives a tremendous performance).
Soon, Mikey is on the (adjusted for context) come-up, scoring steady weed-dealing cash and plotting how he can use anyone in a 10-foot radius as a ladder rung back to adult-film greatness. But it's his infatuation with barely legal doughnut shop employee Strawberry (Suzanna Son) that might lead life to give Mikey the shaft once and for all.
This one's naked, folks, from its ambitions to its depiction of small-town grime to the occasional absence of Rex's pants. A cheek tragedy, let's say.
Baker, who also co-wrote and edited the film, and Texas cinematographer Drew Daniels are in full escapist fantasy mode. Except "Red Rocket" transports the viewer not to beach paradise but to the version of coastal Texas filled with fumes, scorched by UV rays and filigreed with concrete. Gas flares and oil rigs dominate the geography, just as brutally endemic as the craggy features of Mikey's beat-up, pretty-boy face. Landscapes — wide-open parking lots, streetlight-streaked asphalt, pastel resort condos — are filmed as beautifully as any picture in Texas Highways.
Trump billboards and 2015 presidential debate clips act out history in the background. The former president's cult of personality quietly parallels Mikey's own vampiric charisma.
Baker's prior films brought dimension to sex work and those within it, and "Red Rocket" is no exception. Rex, a former MTV VJ, sitcom player and rapper, goes whole hog in a truly unlikable role. Mikey's winning smile and oily promises signal a protagonist only in the plot sense — calling him a hero would cause a spit take. And yet he is eminently watchable, a slowly capsizing tanker and a siren on a rock all at once. Plus, he does some of the best acting on an amusement park roller coaster ever committed to the screen.
Elrod is his counterweight in every way. She gives a stunning (and funny) performance as an exhausted woman betrayed one too many times. Lexi and Mikey used to be Bonnie and Clyde, but they've long since become a tapeworm and a host. Watching Lexi's hopes go for one last ride with her ex's cynical striving is pure suspense by the end.
And that's not even the most suspenseful thing in the movie. Remember when "Uncut Gems" was the stressful movie du jour? An abrupt plot turn in the back half of "Red Rocket" grows into an onscreen ulcer. And still, you'll thrill at the prospect of this Teflon crook — or "suitcase pimp," as he's called — backed up against a wall. Maybe this time! Maybe this time.
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Vulgar, dark and comical, "Red Rocket" is not a friendly movie. A general lack of generosity in its fixation on the bottom crust of the American pie, coupled with that street casting we mentioned, is a cause for some squirming. You wouldn't want to condescend to the amateur actors enlisted to play these lurid parts, but by the same token, you can't ignore the fact that you're watching an arthouse movie that will mostly be consumed as entertainment by folks far removed from the margins.
Maybe it's all part of the game. This is a movie whose main character is a predator — of young women, of the elderly, of the young and impressionable — who at first appears to be a buffoon. It starts out with a laugh, sure. But before you know it, it's ugliness from here to Galveston.
Guess that's how it feels to get conned. Say bye, bye, bye to whatever you expected to happen.
Starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss
Director: Sean Baker
Rated: R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, strong sexual content
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Watch: In theaters