20 years after leaving his hometown of Texas City to make it as an adult film star in LA, Mikey washes up on the door of his ex/current wife Lexey’s house looking for money. You can practically smell the stale cigarette smoke on his clothes in the theatre. Red Rocket (2021), written and directed by Sean Baker, is a true antihero tale of a loathsome suitcase pimp that challenges its audiences throughout in uncomfortable and compelling ways.
We are introduced to Mikey on the bus ride home to the tune of NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye, the film’s theme. The song is played multiple times throughout the film, gaining different contexts and meaning each time it is played, being chopped up and remixed differently throughout. There is something deeply strange but delightful in hearing the pop song in a movie theatre, but the longer it plays as we follow Mikey’s trip home, the more the connections to dated 2000’s culture become apparent.
The film unfolds itself to the audience slowly – yet still with a kinetic sense of momentum to Baker’s storytelling – as Mikey attempts to build some sort of life after returning home to the tiny Gulf Coast town of Texas City after 20 years in LA, through sheer charm and force of will. He is a hustler by nature. He knows if he can just talk long enough, he can get what he’s after. The film takes a deeply uncomfortable turn as Mikey becomes transfixed on the 17-year old donut shop waitress who goes by Strawberry (first-time actress Suzanna Son), which pushes the audience’s moral boundaries to its limit.
Baker has a better eye for casting than possibly any in the industry, as his neo-realist leaning of non-actor casting or inspired lead choices including Willem Dafoe and Simon Rex set his films apart in modern American filmmaking. The latter, a product of the early 2000s that has faded into obscurity in a similar way to Mikey where the subtext just feels like text.
Rex carries a nervous energy throughout the film, even when he’s bragging about his past life, or convincing someone to hire him, he seems aware that even at his “highest” moments of the film, he has still constructed a house of cards.
There are multiple instances in Red Rocket where Baker is showing the audience that even the film itself is checking out of Mikey’s motor-mouthed wheeling and dealing. Inspired by one of the best scenes in Taxi Driver (1976) where Scorsese shows the audience that even the film is embarrassed by its protagonist, Baker deployed similar tactics to tune out its loathsome protagonist in a subtle and effective way. The film achieves this either by drowning out Mikey with sound effects (having a train go past and obstruct Mikey pleading with Strawberry near the climax of the film) or by pulling the camera’s focus literally off of Mikey as he is explaining why he left LA to Lexey. Baker rarely flashes moments of commentary within his films, but it is so necessary here to undercut the more challenging aspects that may be interpreted as his values.
The peripheries of the film are littered with Trump-era politics, showing a MAGA billboard but obscuring the former president. The film is set in the run-up to the 2016 election, with the RNC broadcast on the TV throughout, gesturing to the audience heavily to compare Mikey’s slick and opportunistic motormouth to Trump.
The charm of Baker’s previous films has been his ability to tell deeply empathetic stories of people on the fringes, but here the central figure of Mikey, the washed-up adult film star, is so unlikeable that he asks the audience more difficult questions throughout.
These questions Baker is asking the audience are challenging and deeply engaging, as the final shots ask the question of what we really want out of this story and out of Mikey. Are we just along for the ride, anticipating the inevitable car crash, or have we spent enough time with this motormouth charmer that we want him to succeed?
Baker is a deeply humanist filmmaker that always understands his characters in intimate ways, as well as having the awareness to know how an audience member will feel about his characters. That assignment is wildly different here in Red Rocket in comparison to Tangerine (2015), as Baker weaponises similar humanistic techniques to ask the audience how far are they willing to go down this path with Mikey? A simple focus pull in a kitchen can tell you everything about how Baker wants the audience to feel about Mikey’s yarn spinning, and who we should be empathising with within the scene.
Red Rocket will not be for everyone with its difficult subject matter and protagonist, but Baker is such a tremendous filmmaker and tells such deeply human stories of people on the borders of society that it’s definitely worth your time.
Red Rocket is screening in cinemas nationwide from January 6th.