Mikey Saber is the jet fuel of Red Rocket, the new blue-collar, Texas-set film from writer, director, and producer Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project). Played by Simon Rex, the chipper thirty-something ex-porn star returns home to find a whole host of folks who don’t care to see him, wife and mother-in-law included. You can’t blame them.
Mikey has plenty of flaws, but he isn’t the easily dismissible scum you might be imagining. He’s loveable, chatty, honest, sincere, and surprisingly clever. Though, you could also call him naïve, overly optimistic, oblivious, shameless, and unrelenting. He is open about and proud of his work, as we learn from his hilarious Step Brothers-esque job interview montage. Two thousand movies, six awards, thirteen nominations, and Best Oral three years in a row, if you were wondering. The recruiters are less impressed, so he gets a gig moving weed, which he sells in the form of American flag-themed joints, per the locale.
Despite his roots, he considers himself a city guy, so something must have gone wrong in LA to send him back to the small Trumpian Gulf Coast town where he grew up. As far as landscape is concerned, Texas City is a waking nightmare of industry giants and concomitant dilapidation and pollution (air, water, land, you name it). Houses are lined with wiry rusted silver fences and overgrown lawns. Fellow Texans will recognize the small town culture in Lone Star, Luby’s, Dillard’s, fake leather couches, and embarrassingly large Stripes cups. But Baker portrays the working-class world with fresh wonder, as he’s wont to do so well.
Red Rocket director of photography Drew Daniels deserves ample praise for the composition and color that grounds the camerawork and captures the city and its people with a stunning, empathetic lens. Bringing over the sunny, natural cinematography from his last feature, Waves, he shoots an aesthetically displeasing place with visual brilliance by accentuating the noteworthy details and finding the actual beauty within as opposed to trying to recreate it.
For example, Daniels takes a cue from Thief cinematographer Donald E. Thorin by layering the brights dotting the industrial smokestacks surrounding them in the background. The multi-colored lights hang in the distance at night, blown out into blurry, colorful circles decorating the backdrop. In some shots, he tilts the camera up so severely that all we see behind our subject is a titan Texan sky practically dripping with clouds. When framing the supremely uninteresting Donut Hole shop Mikey frequents, Daniels and Baker choose to highlight the humming red neon sign out front, the colors of which add synchronistic character to the deep yellow building and make the setting visually intriguing.
Mikey goes to the Donut Hole all the time because of the woman — er, girl — who works there. Red Rocket’s one major deterrent for the masses is that it might get Cuties’d. That is to say, people who process art on the surface will likely look at Donut Hole cashier Strawberry (the Baker-discovered Suzanna Son in her debut role) as an emblem of unfounded moral corruption. Why? She’s only seventeen, and Mikey is infatuated with her. But make no mistake: you can trust a seemingly uncouth story like this in the hands of Baker.
If you boil all the antics of Baker’s seventh feature down, you’re left with a dense examination of a community of fully lived characters. His engrossing directorial vision and scintillating dialogue — he wrote Red Rocket with regular collaborator Chris Bergoch — are largely to thank. But Rex is the vessel through which Baker’s ideas come to fruition, and the Cannes Film Festival should recognize him properly with a Best Actor trophy.
Baker is also known for casting his own films with real-world characters whom he discovers and getting dynamite performances out of non-actors. Until Willem Dafoe’s role in The Florida Project, Baker’s movies were as far away from Hollywood as any known American film could be. And they still are. The minor ways in which they aren’t are only reflective of the uptick in production quality stemming from more attention and greater funding since the success of Tangerine in 2015.
So, the choice of a real-life-porn-star-turned-C-list-actor, who you likely know as the Eminem parody from Scary Movie 3, seems out of Baker’s jurisdiction on paper. But once you see Rex in all his buzzing eccentricity in Red Rocket, you realize the choice is triumphant, and one that likely only Baker could’ve made. Rex might’ve had his paws all over Hollywood for the past couple of decades, but he’s never secured a breakout role or been a household name. In that sense, he’s another one of Baker’s discoveries. We didn’t know Rex was capable of award-worthy lead performances. Now we do.
The film is a riot, too. From a fully nude piano rendition of N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” to Mikey trying to steal money out of a Velcro wallet while the wallet’s owner is asleep next to him in the dead of night to a punchline that amounts to the swinging donkey dick of Mikey Saber himself (a reveal that gives Dirk Diggler a run for his money), Red Rocket is as funny as it is revealing of its characters. After all, these are the kind of people who watch Trump late at night, hooting and hollering while he “predicts” a rigged election through real 2016 campaign footage that Baker sneaks in.
Red Rocket is a totally unique, unseen story in cinema right now. And in that sense, too, it’s magnetic to witness these people live. Baker is the kind of filmmaker that knows real life is richer in character than any film could possibly be, and he finds those real-life characters and brings them to the screen faithfully. So, it feels as if we’re watching some brilliantly imagined roles, but in reality, they are more likely a reflection of someone, if not the actual person, Baker has encountered. We continue to be lucky he finds them.