Plenty of movies are built around the machinations of scoundrels, but it takes a special kind of charisma—maybe on both sides of the camera—to get an audience hooked on their scheming exploits without turning all of us into either cheerleaders or a clucking gallery of scolds. That’s the feat of suspended love-hate engagement Sean Baker pulls off with Red Rocket, his deliriously funny and deviously satirical new comedy about a very specific, finely sketched specimen of parasitic American hustler.
Baker’s subject, who appears in almost every scene of the movie, is Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a former porn star who’s fallen on hard times. We know, from the minute we lay eyes on him, that Mikey is trouble, or at least that he’s in trouble: He’s got bruises and scrapes all over his body—the evidence of an altercation the movie amusingly never totally clarifies. Once Mikey opens his motor mouth, unleashing an unbroken stream of ingratiating bullshit, we understand how someone might want to put a few welts on him. He has that classic conman shamelessness, the ability to just keep talking until he either gets what he wants or finally exhausts the patience of whomever he’s locked in the crosshairs of his manipulative charm.
Red Rocket, which Baker shot on gorgeously grainy 16mm, is set in Texas City, Texas, the small, economically depleted Gulf Coast town where Mikey was born and raised. Twenty years earlier, he left for Los Angeles, never looking back. But Mikey’s returned now, broke and homeless, in search of a lifeline. His estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), who followed him into the adult film industry a lifetime ago (one of a few plot details that Baker skillfully withholds for a while), wants nothing to do with him. Nor does her take-no-shit mother (Brenda Deiss), with whom she now lives. But Mikey knows how to sucker his way into hospitality. Next thing you know, he’s crashing on their couch by night and moving “flower” by day, pedaling around town on a bicycle and peddling for the local drug queenpin (Judy Hill) he’s known since childhood.
Just on paper, Rex was inspired casting. Like Mikey, the fortysomething actor got his start in pornography, and he’s moved through a variety of roles—model, MTV VJ, sitcom star, Hollywood actor, rapper—that abstractly mirror the character’s own zig-zag of showbiz misadventures. (The weariness of an aging B-celebrity entrepreneur who’s passed largely out of the limelight can probably be faked, but not this convincingly.) Yet the screwball brilliance of the performance can’t be chalked up to context alone. Rex is a revelation here, a star reborn. He shrewdly conceals the depths of Mikey’s bone-deep selfishness under a lot of guileless blather, a hapless fool routine. The movie only works if our dawning awareness of his rottenness collides with what a hoot he can be, in all his calculated boylike scampishness.
Like Mikey, Red Rocket has deceptive layers. It comes on like a redemption story: the prodigal son returning, humbled, to the hometown and the life he abandoned, ready to make good. But Baker isn’t so sentimental. What he’s really made is a shit-kicking farce in which Mikey’s sometimes hilarious shadiness—his huckster plot to get back on top—shades into genuine transgression without dipping into misery porn. The movie’s slipperiness is right there in the rhythms of Baker’s editing. He opens the movie with Mikey synchronously startling awake to the first verse of N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”—a mega hit from the character’s AVN-winning heyday that keeps popping back up on the soundtrack, like an unofficial theme—only to cut the tune off abruptly a moment later. Red Rocket keeps us on our toes that way.
This is as far as Baker has ever strayed into outright comedy since his Greg The Bunny years, but the movie is still very much in the area code of vibrantly scraggly subcultural portraits like his Tangerine and The Florida Project. As in those films, the writer-director fills out his cast with a strong ensemble of relative unknowns and nonprofessionals—a whole town of interesting foils for Mikey, squabbling and struggling and running their own schemes on the margins of his. Baker doesn’t condescend to the impoverished American environments he shoots: He’s interested in the lives of characters most movies usually ignore or caricature—including sex workers, who have sat at the center of all of his recent work, and whose experiences he neither romanticizes nor views through a moralistic lens. In Red Rocket, he reserves particular empathy for Lexi, a hardened survivor whose misfortunes keeps peeking through the cracks in Mikey’s amoral wheeling and dealing.
Of course, Baker’s big gambit is centering a character whose behavior challenges our capacity for empathy. Information about Mikey’s past arrives in dribs and drabs, until we start to understand him as a quintessentially American vulture: a “suitcase pimp” whose waning skin-flick stardom led to a career exploiting others. It’s around this time that he sets his sights on Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a teenager who works at the local donut shop and who he begins to groom as his next “discovery,” his ticket to a big comeback. Baker, who explored the porn industry more explicitly in Starlet, presents Mikey’s indefensible actions as a proxy for all walks of capitalistic user and abuser. The film’s least subtle move is situating the story in the summer of 2016, against a backdrop of televised campaign speeches and “Make America Great Again” billboards. We really don’t need those signposts to see the unmistakable parallels between two Red State predators.
Red Rocket never loses its comic edge, even when the story grows darker and Mikey’s true colors reveal themselves. The perspective remains safely sealed within the character’s bubble of self-interest: Life is a gas for Mikey, no matter how shitty it is for everyone else. (In one sly nod to his me-first tunnel vision, other people point out to him both the Texas Killing Fields and what was once a slave-trade outpost; to say he’s barely interested would be an understatement.) Still, just because Mikey has dodged consequences his whole life doesn’t mean his free ride is destined to continue further. Red Rocket builds to a cathartic punctuation for this chapter in his chaotic life: There’s no denying the queasy entertainment value of watching a scoundrel stay one step ahead of comeuppance, nor the satisfaction of seeing one finally trip.