Credit: A24
by M.G. Mailloux Featured Film Spotlight

Red Rocket | Sean Baker

December 7, 2021

Red Rocket is an intentionally bad vibes experience, and while the film’s messaging is resolutely simplistic, it’s all kept afloat by Simon Rex’s year’s-best performance.

It’s been far too long since we’ve been graced with a legitimate performance from Simon Rex a.k.a Dirt Nasty, the most esteemed white boy rapper turned comedy superstar. Thriving in the 2000s as both pop musician and the star of the post-Wayans Scary Movies, Rex lost his hold on audiences as sensibilities drifted away from the crass and bawdy and toward dopey, Mike Schur-style comedy. But of course, it’s this archetypal Hollywood journey that’s of particular interest to filmmaker Sean Baker, who has savvily cast Rex in his latest feature Red Rocket as washed-up porn star Mikey Saber, sent scurrying back to his hometown after the collapse of his fringe celebrity. 

For Mikey, home is Texas City, Texas, a factory town left behind by the globalized economy, though fiery smokestacks still dot the horizon. Set during the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election (something Baker refuses to let us forget), Red Rocket catches up with Mikey over a decade after he left for L.A. to pursue a career in porn; now bruised, destitute, and desperate to squirm back into the good graces of his ex-wife and mother-in-law. Initially a tale of a man humbled, Red Rocket quickly pivots to being a character study by way of political allegory, revealing Mikey as a narcissist incapable of humility, positioning him as a parallel Donald Trump figure. The film’s first hour traces out his efforts to reestablish himself in this isolated Texas town (getting back in with his ex, setting himself up as the go-to weed-slinger for the oil workers), while the second finds him attempting to undo it all after a chance encounter with Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a Lolita-esque figure (age 17) Mikey envisions as a star performer in the adult film industry, and also his means of getting back to California.

Pushing his usual queasy blend of biting comedy and bleak social realism to an extreme yet unreached, Baker takes a gamble with Red Rocket, centering this movie on a character who he’s kept as antagonist previously — Mikey brings to mind James Ransone’s pimp in Tangerine) and forcing his audience to inhabit his POV for a 130-minute runtime. A purposefully unpleasant experience, Red Rocket can’t really afford its runtime, nor the simplicity of its message (Trump won the presidency because America is rife with parasitic creeps like him), but Rex’s electric, skillfully balanced performance (recalling Elaine May’s pathetically cruel protagonists) and Drew Daniels’ zippy 16mm cinematography keep the film afloat. Dealing in bad vibes exclusively, Red Rocket isn’t without some appealingly bitter insights into contemporary American culture, but ultimately, Rex is the only one bringing fresh energy to the project, these observations on Trump’s America coming a few years too late. At the very least, Red Rocket will hopefully lead to more work for the great Dirt Nasty.

Originally published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 3.