‘Red Rocket’ Review: Donuts to Dollars

Like a lot of characters in director/co-writer Sean Baker’s ballooning Rolodex of marginalized Americana, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) in Red Rocket is very much down and out. We first see him with bruises on his face, sleeping on the bus ride to his hometown of Texas City. NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” plays to accompany his arrival, somewhat ironically for its upbeat nature but also appropriately: here, after all, is a guy as past his sell-by date as the song itself, pushing 50 and booted from the L.A. porn scene for reasons he later explains but no one who knows him seems to believe.

The Gulf Coast oil refineries are a constant fixture of the horizon as Mikey walks from the bus station to the weathered home of Lil (Brenda Deiss), his mother-in-law, and Lexi (Bree Elrod), his (very) estranged wife. As red flags go, this is one of the big ones; he has shown up unannounced to people who want nothing to do with him, to the point where they begin to call the cops to get him off the property. Mikey obliges, going to stand on the public road but calling out for Lexi to come over across the lawn so he doesn’t have to shout; Mikey Saber is a guy who respects boundaries insofar as he can then point to how reasonable he’s being by doing so and thus get a little closer to getting what he wants. And what he wants is soon what he gets: a shower and then a spot on Lexi and Lil’s couch as long as he chips in for the rent.

Despite our better judgment, we like Mikey. He is, so far as we can tell, more of an endearing rogue than the sort of apocalyptic force that might justify his welcome from Lexi and Lil. We’re not privy to whatever has alienated him from them so it is functionally irrelevant, and we’re sympathetic to his plight: he’s got nowhere else to go and then only a borrowed a bicycle to get around. Every job interview involves the manager balking at his lack of steady employment and then balking again at his experience as an adult film performer, award-winning performances be damned. He starts selling weed for Leondria (Judy Hill), the neighborhood matriarch, and he actually does sell it rather than smoking it all himself like she’s pretty sure he’s going to. He starts paying the rent. He starts seeing a 17-year-old donut shop clerk who goes by “Strawberry” (Suzanna Son), and then he starts grooming her to be his ticket back into porn.

He gets less sympathetic somewhere in there.

A Fool for You

With Mikey, Sean Baker plays around with our expectations and our better instincts in a way he never quite has before. The characters of his films tend to be rough around the edges, behaving in ways that aren’t easy to immediately sympathize with and excuse. They can be forceful, and they are generally prickly and adversarial toward even the people who are giving them a break. They are allowed to be human, to push back against the typically condescending depiction of poverty made pretty enough for easy consumption. (It very much shows that a film like Tangerine was developed in close collaboration with its leads, who foreground their experiences as trans sex workers for a semi-comedic street journey rather than what might easily have been the miserable, pitying eye of an outsider.)

Where we come around on Baker’s other characters as we spend time with them, however, our opinion of Mikey only sinks lower. Red Rocket is not the portrait of a guy who contains multitudes, whose actions can be either generous or cruel according to the complexities of the human condition; it’s the story of a parasite, a tick on the ass of the Texas City outskirts that isn’t burned off quickly enough. Unlike many of Baker’s other characters, Mikey is able to cultivate a relatively stable living situation and then keeps trying to trade up behind the backs of the people who accommodate him. He attaches himself to Strawberry in a relationship that is, in Texas, legal but plainly predatory and self-serving.

Our discomfort is allowed to grow rather than explode all at once. For as icky as the Mikey/Strawberry relationship feels, it’s somewhat tempered by her genuine infatuation with Mikey the big-city stranger, the potential ticket out of Texas City. He’s never too forceful; it’s all a firm nudge rather than a violent shove, as we consider the disapproving and distrustful voice in our heads that we ought to have paid more attention to.

Ain’t No Lie

In a bid for an overarching statement About America, the rise of Mikey plays out alongside the 2016 election and the rise of Donald Trump. Though never directly referenced, we glimpse Trump’s billboards and hear his words on TV, as one media-entrenched quack is clearly meant to complement the trajectory of another. But most of these comparisons feel tenuous at best, as Mikey’s charismatic tactics resemble the burbling oafishness of the former President only in the broader strokes. Rather than unearthing some greater truth about the way America is so enamored with hucksters, Red Rocket mostly just draws a line from one guy who is bad to another guy who is also bad.

We do, at least, get a fairly involving portrait of this sort of charlatan. On a technical level, this is Baker’s most accomplished film, adding some hilarious camera movements to a discordantly picturesque view of the environment, like the brightly-colored donut shop operating in the shadow of the oil refineries. And in the lead role, Simon Rex is as intentionally exhausting as he is magnetic and entertaining, marking a conspicuous departure from Baker’s tendency to build his films around first-timers. We can see and feel how Mikey either ropes people in or wears them down despite his blatant narcissism (in one scene, he laments the death of Paul Walker because it lost him work in future Fast and Furious porn parodies). Though Rex hardly has the experience of prior supporting players in Baker films like James Ransone and Willem Dafoe, he’s a guy with on-camera experience. The number of credits on his IMDb page compared to one of Baker’s typical leads is vast. And in Red Rocket, that experience is used to initially disarm us; though Rex never reads as self-consciously “acting” in comparison to the rest of the cast, his experience is meant to be accompanied by a level of suspicion.

We are left to wonder how much of Mikey Saber is a put-on, how many of his genuine feelings we truly witness, and if he has reached that point where the persona inextricably merges with the person. Rex does not play him like a guy constantly doing calculations in his head, as the character’s narcissism prevents any total self-awareness. But we can recognize the broad strokes of his plotting as it plays out; in most scenes he’s with somebody else, trying to get something from them. He’s able to smoothly incorporate new wrinkles as they appear: when he tries to mooch a ride from Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the neighbor, Mikey isn’t prepared for Lonnie to recognize him and regard him as a kind of small-town legend but he uses it without missing a beat. And around Lonnie, we see Mikey uncork the misogyny that’s bottled up around the women he primarily spends time with, revealing a deep resentment for Lexi even as he fucks his way from sleeping on the couch to sharing her bed.

Red Rocket

Can’t Take No More

For as much as he plays around in a similar toolbox, Baker has never been a totally naturalistic filmmaker. He is very much in the business of making movies with some structure or big idea. The exciting part is that the people he features are rarely featured in movies at all, and rarely in this light. They have a surrounding texture that sets them apart, even when films of his like Starlet brush up against archetypal obviousness. But in contrast to films like Good Time and Uncut Gems from the Safdie Brothers, Red Rocket shows that Baker is not quite as skilled at leaving space for the world around the edges of a motormouthed protagonist. The film rambles towards a runtime of 132 minutes, with a laser focus on Mikey that loses some of the more panoramic view that characterizes Baker’s previous films.

It’s not that the surrounding texture is absent; there are plenty of peripheral characters, like local drug supplier Leondria and the way her authoritative demeanor slides in and out of business transactions and family squabbles, or the way her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez) is her scariest enforcer. I’ve met plenty of people like mother-in-law Lil, who’s nosy and jumps at the chance to scold but means well. But while these people do indeed seem to have interior lives, there’s little effort made to explore them; Strawberry in particular seems to only sporadically exist outside her job as donut purveyor, with rather little understood about her home or school life (notice, for example, that everyone else she knows seems to use her real name rather than the nickname she has given Mikey).

This is all, I suspect, fully intentional given the self-absorbed nature of the Mikey Saber character. We see just enough to recognize that these are people but that the details don’t matter all that much to Mikey beyond what he can use. The disparity does make sense. But considering the broader perspectives of Baker’s other films and the rather protracted nature of Red Rocket by comparison, it’s all quite a long way to go in service of making some rather obvious points, however skillfully and engagingly made they may be.

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