Red Rocket (18) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir: Sean Baker, US, 2021, 130 mins.

Cast: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Paul Dano, Suzanna Son

Review by Ben Thomas

Sean Baker’s Red Rocket is a disconcerting portrayal of grooming, abdication and manipulation in the U.S.A. Floundering ex-porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) returns to his hometown Texas after exhausting all his options and finances in Los Angeles.

Opening with an ironic variation of the story of the Prodigal Son, Mikey confidently strides home across the front lawn. Expecting rejoicing, he receives a frosty welcome from his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss). The ring and robe are nowhere to be seen, but Mikey—of course—wangles his way into the house anyway. A time later, after appeasing his wife and gaining some independence, Mikey meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old doughnut shack worker, and he hatches a haphazard plan to resurrect his career and his dreams.

Red Rocket is a shocking film—easily Baker’s most unsettling to date. The director has always been unafraid to foreground argumentation and place a focus on morally bankrupt protagonists who show no sign of a conventional redemption arc, but in Red Rocket this is even more pronounced. Mikey is horrifically self-centred, a more physical and less intellectual incarnation of Naked’s (1993) Johnny (David Thewlis). Both men, once charismatic and captivating, intolerably operate from the same playbook as their younger years; they cover their brutality with hyperactivity and mask their irresponsibility with armchair philosophy—one cynical and the other optimistic.

Mikey’s untamed ability to talk is his fatal vice. His tongue moves faster than his brain can cope and that makes him dangerous, damaging and delusional. The voice of Donald Trump invades the ambience of the film, and a strong comparison can be made between the spirit that possesses the two men, specifically regarding their ability to self-justify to the point of rewiring reality itself. Mikey only cares about people to the extent that they impact himself, he doesn’t exhibit remorse beyond repenting of his own suffering—he has been watching the news.

Though Red Rocket cannot be described as feel-good, it is not wholly bleak or depraved. The candy colour palette and expressive cinematography, the best I have seen this year, add vibrancy and depth to a scenic local community. From meandering landscape shots, capturing the skies and the happenings below, to impressive bursts of camera-based comedy, Red Rocket is a beautiful technical triumph. There is a form of social realism at play, but it is not at the cost of personality. 

Red Rocket is important viewing and part of a flurry of films that have documented the spiritual hollowing-out of American society over the past decade or so. Due to its intense subject matter, the film might not reach as widespread an audience as it deserves, but this says nothing for the quality of the filmmaking nor the uniqueness of its social criticism.