Sean Baker’s latest feature film reveals the grating reality of a decadent West.
Meet Mikey, a washed-up porn star who busses home to Texas City, TX bloodied and bruised, eager to get back in the good graces of his estranged wife Lexi. Charismatic and conniving, Mikey snakes his way through a past life, selling weed and sleeping with Lexi when it suits him. Bumming rides around town from his neighbor Lonnie, Mikey recounts stories of adult film fame and glory; it only takes a few car rides to understand how Mikey centers himself in the narrative – as either heralded star or victim of betrayal and deceit. Mikey radiates a frenetic energy, seemingly aimless until it is not, abruptly focalized when he meets Strawberry. A sultry seventeen year-old with Shirley Temple looks and a nickname predestined for porn, Strawberry is to Mikey a ticket back into the biz. From here the film’s tensions escalate, equally disturbing as it is hilarious, reveling in the absurdity of witnessing a narcissist blow up the worlds of those around him.
Red Rocket summons the elements that have become distinctive to Baker’s projects – a cast of mostly non-professional actors; a place on the margins of an American city in sharp decline; a narrative focused on the human condition bottomed out, the struggles of those on the fringes of a materialistic society. But Baker takes more risks with his fourth feature, and the payoff is lucrative for this era of independent film. Straying from any formulaic execution, Red Rocket is Baker’s creative vision uncompromised, in fully realized form. It’s a film that impresses on you long after the credits, like the nausea and sapped sensation that comes with staying in the sun too long.
With Red Rocket, Baker masterfully stylizes society in decay. A visual ode to Gatsby’s valley of the ashes, Mikey rides his bike past refineries and manufacturing plants that waft plumes of smoke and blink green against overripe sunsets. Scenes from the 2016 presidential election unfold like a reality show on Lexi’s TV throughout the film, a reminder of the dangers of dissociating the ludicrous nature of scenes playing out before you with the reality of their consequences. Like the faces filling up Fox and CNN, Mikey, too, is shiny and dirty, idealistic and manipulative in a way that both repulses and keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
Employing a variety of steadied long takes and sharp close-ups angled from below, the film bears it all, at once both exposing and exploitative; Mikey’s choices barrel down on you, one after another grinding away the potential for any redeeming decency. A performance particularly potent is that of Bree Elrod, as strung out, compulsive Lexi, sinking in moments of degradation, in others, shining with spiteful vengeance. And Simon Rex is stellar as Mikey – all sweat, conceit, talking a mile a minute – in the way he draws you into his orbit, but burns you just as quickly.