By Erica Abeel
Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker.
No woman, I’m willing to bet, could have filmed the sex scenes in Red Rocket. She would have cracked up laughing or thrown up.
The moment the credits rolled after Red Rocket, the new film from Sean Baker, I wanted to rush home and take a shower.
Baker has emerged as bard of American society on the fringe, often sussing out the talent of a cast of non-professionals. Tangerine (which I have not seen) followed L.A. transgender sex workers and was shot on an iPhone. For all its low-rent technology, or maybe because of it, Baker became a filmmaker to notice. I’m a great fan of his next outing, The Florida Project, a journey into America’s lower depths anchored by a winning six-year-old girl and set in a Disney-colored motel-cum-flophouse near Orlando, Fla. where she lives with a mother who turns tricks in their room. The film mixes heartbreak with the buoyancy natural to children, even those pointed toward the bleakest future. As the motel manager, Willem Dafoe, the film’s sole professional, delivers an indelible turn as a man struggling to balance the outsize needs of his lodgers with his own survival.
Red Rocket — which played in the Main Selection of Cannes and, last month, at the New York Film Festival — also hunkers down among people plying the shadier precincts of American society. But unlike Florida, with its charm factor and underlying poignancy, Rocket almost glories in ugliness, starting with its dubious lead, a fellow hard to root for. Add to that the film’s oppressive setting: the near-apocalyptic desolation of Texas oil refineries, shot during magic hour (ironically?) and surrounding sprawl of houses with vinyl siding and scraggly yards.
Red Rocket (slang for a dog’s erection, who knew?) tracks the exploits of Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a former porn star and world class scuzz, who returns home c. 2016 from Hollywood to Texas City, Texas to regroup and plot his comeback. We first meet him riding a bus, battered and bruised, N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” blaring on the soundtrack. There’s no “home,” though, to welcome back this prodigal husband. Mikey’s estranged wife Lexi (Brett Elrod), who lives with her mother (Brenda Deiss), greets him with insults, orders him off the scabby property, and threatens to call the cops. Consummate hustler that he is, Mikey uses his skill to worm his way into the household, and eventually Lexi’s bed.
The supporting cast of small time scammers are even less appealing than Mikey. An exception is Lonnie, the neighboring incel-type dude, played to comic perfection by local chef Ethan Darbone. The film’s steadiest presence is a scowling pit bull that keeps vigil on the porch of Lexi’s house and appears more knowing than his human minders
To pay the rent he’s promised his wife, Mikey combs the area for a job, flunking every interview when reluctant to explain his long periods of unemployment. In desperation, he finally blurts to a woman in cat-eye glasses that he’s been working in the adult film industry. “You what?” she responds. Eventually Mikey scrapes together a few bucks selling dime bags, a gig he wheedles from a pair of neighboring dealers who regard him with the warmth of two buzzards.
Salvation beckons when Mikey fetches up at a local joint called The Donut Hole, bordering the refineries like a crayola apparition on the lip of hell. Once he locks eyes with the luscious teen cashier named Strawberry (Suzanna Son), it’s instant love. Or something. Understandably the girl is itching to leave Texas City. Mikey sees her as his meal ticket back to the porno limelight — where he can play “suitcase pimp” and “manage” her career — dollar signs virtually flashing from his eyes. Their first tryst takes place in the back of a flatbed truck; cut to Strawberry, sore and “recovering,” but still game. After shooting a sex video together, they plan to escape to L.A. and make it happen. But Lexi and her cohorts get wind of Mikey’s plan, forcing him to defer his dreams in a darkly funny denouement.
The casting of Simon Rex as Mikey has a meta flavor: the actor (47) has put in time as a B-list regular and porn star. It’s gratifying to see Rex emerge from the sidelines and maybe step into bigger roles — ones that could harness the hi-voltage energy he emanates onscreen to better effect than Rocket. As his accomplice Strawberry, newbie Son nails a Texas City-style nymphet ready to rock before you can say “transgressive.”
If there’s some aspect of Mikey to root for it might be his refusal to admit defeat, as he dodges assorted disasters, often of his own making — including a highway pileup he’s caused, getting the incel neighbor to take the rap for him — and casts around for a path to his second act. Never one to downplay his assets, Mikey claims that in his porn film career, it’s he, not the woman, who should get the AVN award (the Oscars of porn) for Best Blowjob. The camera’s frenetic whips and zooms capture Mikey’s maneuvers, as he careens through the film in a gonzo version of the American can-do ethos.
At the same time, Rocket raises questions a bit outside of film criticism proper. Its director Sean Baker has been accused of “poverty porn.” This strikes me as unfair. But given that the film is set in 2016, with Trump on the cusp and his voice blaring from TV sets, it’s notable that the MAGA-in-the-making characters appear completely oblivious. Baker shuns political comment, yet here he could have teased out ironies too rich to ignore.
What’s more problematic, even ludicrous, are the film’s sex scenes purporting to show rapturous women responding to Mikey’s amorous style, which is on the order of an electro pneumatic drill used to break up concrete. Talk about the male gaze. No woman, I’m willing to bet, could have filmed such scenes. She would have cracked up laughing or thrown up. Not likely either that a female filmmaker would ask you to root for a suitcase pimp who exploits teenage girls. Then there’s the egregious age difference: Mikey appears to be late-forties, Strawberry looks seventeen. Their intimate encounters are not only cringe-worthy — they feel actionable. Rocket never so much as nods at the discrepancy.
To make the cut at Cannes and the New York Film Fest confers instant prestige on a film. For most women, though, Red Rocket will be a hard sell.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her 2016 novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, was recently published by Adelaide Books.