After Tangerine and The Florida Project delivered riveting tales about everyday, morally complicated people navigating the hardships of poverty, without having said poverty be their defining quality, I thought I knew what to expect from a movie by writer/director Sean Baker. And then he throws the ultimate cinematic curveball in the form of Red Rocket. Baker has maintained the naturalistic settings and use of non-professional actors from his preceding works, but this otherwise feels like a different beast. A dark comedy that's bound to make you squeamish, Red Rocket distinguishes itself from prior Baker movies, though the compulsively watchable nature of the production will be familiar to anyone whose watched Tangerine and The Florida Project.
Mikey Davis (Simon Rex) is not an upstanding person. Not because he's a former pornstar, oh no. Davis isn't trustworthy because of how he views every person who crosses his path as just a means to his own end. He begins Red Rocket by stumbling off a bus in a bruised state in Texas City, his hometown, and someplace he hasn't been in years. His mission here? Well, firstly, he's gonna hit up his ex-wife for a place to crash. From there, Davis alienates all potential employment opportunities and resorts to selling weed so that he can make some rent money to pay off his spouse and her mom. As he looks around for other people to exploit, he begins dating a 17-year-old by the name of Raylee/Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Like I said, Davis is not a good guy.
Red Rocket is an excellent example of how to make a film with an unlikeable protagonist work as the lead of a movie for two hours. Perhaps the most important reason is something that isn't in the film: backstory. Not once does Baker attempt to give audiences a sob story to explain why Davis is the way he is. Similarly, there aren't even feigned gestures at the idea of a tidy redemption arc that could pack his life into a neat three-act structure. Heck, the audience doesn't even get the full details on how Davis ended up so beaten up when he arrived in Texas City. Davis is an enigma, his abhorrent behavior is just part of who he is. By not trying to provide a rationale for Davis, Baker makes this character click together. This fellow works so much better as an inexplicable tornado than anything else.
It also helps that Simon Rex is electrifying in the lead role, holy cow. Rex portrays Mikey Davis as someone who's always talking yet not saying much. He exudes a confident air, but he always portrays the character, on a physical level, like he could crumble if a strong breeze came along. There's an undeniably fascinating contradiction here, a dude who thinks he's Harold Hill, but in reality, is circling a drain. This compelling personality is executed with live-wire energy from Rex, who harnesses a motormouth dialogue delivery yet such realistically awkward body language in portraying this idiosyncratic guy. A trainwreck manifested as a human being, Davis is always repulsive, but Rex's performance ensures you can't keep your eyes off of him.
Rex's performance plays off a variety of natural Texas City locales that make for a great contrast to the character of Mikey Davis. This guy's always got his head stuck in delusion of enormous grandeur, but he's waltzing around small homes, tiny businesses, and other locations whose physical imperfections reflect the unavoidable reality Davis ignores. These environments are often peppered with bright hues, including an important donut shop coated in vivid yellow or a series of houses near a beach that are adorned in shades of blue and red. This color palette makes Red Rocket a pleasing affair in terms of cinematography (props to Drew Daniels on that part of the production) while the colors themselves look great captured on 16mm film.
Red Rocket is so good that even its choice to set its story against the 2016 presidential election comes off as a thoughtful detail rather than an intrusive strained grasp at relevancy. With speeches from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz blaring on TV's throughout the film, it's interesting to hear their commentary played in close proximity to the newest lying diatribe from Davis. There are chilling parallels here, as Red Rocket quietly suggests that the manipulative behavior of its protagonist is no anomaly. Rather, Davis is emblematic of how much white guys can get away with in American society. Having a moment where Davis races past an American and Texas flag while naked in the climax of Red Rocket only sends home how much this guy is supposed to represent the country he's living in.
There's a lot going on underneath the surface of Red Rocket, but impressively, Baker manages to pull off noteworthy feats of filmmaking and sociopolitical commentary with ease and without undercutting experiencing this feature in the moment. The barrage of unsavory behavior and successful dark humor makes Red Rocket an entertaining film, the kind that can keep your eyeballs engaged in the moment but then leave you impressed with the details informing all that entertainment afterward. It's not quite as good as his last two films, but Sean Baker has delivered another uncomfortable yet well-crafted winner with Red Rocket.
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