When Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) arrives in Texas in the opening moments of Red Rocket, he’s immediately ordered to leave. “You said you weren’t gonna step your foot in Texas again!” his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) yells at him across her front lawn, after making Mikey get off her property.
“And then the world fucked me!” Mikey yells back. He really believes that, too. Over the next two hours, Mikey Saber will talk incessantly and breathlessly about his vision of the world. He sees every misfortune as someone else’s fault, while every setback is just another opportunity for him to emerge victorious, even if he never does. He’s a carnival barker without a big top, and with no real need for one. He’s effortlessly charming, and sleazy to the core. In a few brief minutes, he talks his wife and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), into letting him crash on their couch. And then, over the next few weeks, he makes them wish they hadn’t.
The latest film from director Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project), Red Rocket is a movie about a guy you probably know. Maybe not personally, but you’ve likely crossed paths with a Mikey Saber, perhaps at work, or more likely on TV. On one hand, he’s relatable as hell: All he wanted to do was escape the oil refinery town he grew up in. For a while, he did. Only things didn’t pan out, and now he’s forced to return home to Texas City, where no one really wants him, and the few who don’t know him are about to find out why everyone else feels that way.
At first, Saber comes across sympathetically. He’s a former porn star, and while he’s proud of his prior accomplishments (he repeatedly mentions that he’s a three-time award winner) they also make it difficult to land non-porn work. So he hustles, convincing Leondria (Judy Hill), a drug supplier, to let him sell weed for her like he did when he was a teenager. He bums rides off the now-grown kid next door, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone). Ultimately, he tries to work every angle he can, not just so he can leave, but so he can get back to Los Angeles, where he feels he belongs.
Soon, Mikey idealizes those dreams in Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a teenager who works at the local donut shop. Immediately smitten, he begins spending all his time with Strawberry, each deluding the other into thinking that they will be their means of escape from Texas City. Mikey’s delusion, however, takes a more sinister turn as he starts to see Strawberry as his ticket back into the adult industry, and he slowly starts grooming her into accepting his propositions.
Red Rocket’s script, by Baker and his longtime co-writer Chris Bergoch, keeps things loose and centered on Mikey’s incessant talking. Its strengths, however, lie in the things that happen around Mikey, from the people who don’t say much compared to him, who will remain in Texas City whether or not he does, to the vast expanses of Southern land, where the only landmarks are smokestacks and Trump campaign billboards. In the background of Mikey’s hucksterism, the 2016 presidential campaign plays out on television, never commented on, but ever-present. It’s another story about a man who effortlessly spun fictions about himself and got people to believe them, to the detriment of everyone in his orbit.
Simon Rex’s performance as Mikey sweeps up everything around it, including the movie’s audience. The actor gives the guy an indefatigable energy, and Red Rocket a bit of a real-world parallel — Rex was well-established in the early-aughts party scene, a member of a class of tabloid celebutantes mostly famous for being famous (he also starred in most of the Scary Movie films). He’s the metatextual anchor for Red Rocket’s cast of gifted unknowns and non-actors, continuing Baker’s preference for casting locals to tell local stories. Every Texas City resident is interesting enough to follow around the way Red Rocket follows Mikey. Every scene he shares with them is suffused with hilarious incredulity, as everyone grows increasingly skeptical of Mikey’s bullshit. As Strawberry, Suzanna Son takes on the film’s most difficult task, toeing the line between conveying a 17-year-old’s oblivious naïveté and her selfish ambitions, all while being portrayed through the film’s subjective lens of this older man’s ridiculous fantasy.
In spite of (or because of?) the sleaze at its center, Red Rocket is a comedy. It’s the ultimate hangout film with the ultimate dirtbag, and it constantly provides evidence of something viewers will likely suspect after only a few minutes with Mikey: The man is pathetic. He can’t help but tell you so, even as he thinks he’s talking himself up. Midway through Red Rocket, Mikey gives a profane speech where we learn what he “won” his adult video awards for: oral-sex scenes where he was the recipient. Or, in other words, as several characters point out — arguably not much.
Mikey doesn’t think so, though. He never does. What are the odds, he says, of three different performers winning three years in a row where he is the only common denominator? Other people’s success is thanks to him. His failures are always thanks to someone else. It’s the American political discourse in miniature, a matryoshka doll of blame games that take up all the oxygen in the room while cycles of exploitation continue unabated. If Red Rocket’s story extended over several years instead of several weeks, its events would likely just repeat, with Strawberry yelling across her lawn at Mikey instead of Lexi. He’d have new business partners who fucked him over, more people to fault for robbing him of his chance to shine. When it comes down to it, Mikey just loves fucking people, and it has nothing to do with sex.
Red Rocket is currently playing in theaters.