Sean Baker’s latest film Red Rocket (2021) centres on washed up porn-star Mikey ‘Saber’ (Simon Rex) who returns to his impoverished home town Texas City after nearly two decades with literally only the clothes on his back, desperate to claw himself back up, to become a winner again—a desperation hidden from himself as much as anyone else—he exploits every half connection he has left until he finds a seventeen year old working at a donut shop who calls herself Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Mikey carefully lures this girl who wasn’t even born last time he was in town to first sleep with him and then to become a porn actress herself, his first recruit as an agent, a role he makes up for himself as he goes along, as this ‘opportunity’ reveals itself.
Baker makes the bold and provocative choice to tell this story basically from Mikey’s point of view, there’s not a single scene without him and the tacky camera moves—references to Italian sex comedies apparently, I wouldn’t know—a reflection of his tacky and superficial soul. The narrative structure also comes straight from him, build up of clearly defined pieces, short and concise scenes. Each interaction, each person, has a purely functional purpose, moved carefully into whatever place Mikey has envisioned by his incredible charm and quiet brute force. I do think there is some value in this approach, allowing a groomer to be charming, for you too to be charmed by him, is revealing and maybe even empathetic; Strawberry is never totally without agency, she’s not some symbolic victim, so when she can hardly hold her tears back telling Mikey how happy he makes her, it hits hard in a strange and uncomfortable place.
I have read people calling Mikey a flawed character with heart, so I think it’s worth saying that despite the films often quite light tone, Mikey is an evil character. He sees the world in a purely transitional way and he’s more than comfortable to throw anyone away whenever it’s convenient, long before it’s necessary. As soon as he can leave Texas City with Strawberry, he doesn’t spare a thought to Lexi (Bree Elrod), his Ex-Wife he’s been living and sleeping with, who would soon slip back into prostitution to make ends meet. He knows this explicitly but it means so little to him he never mentions it.
That there is some confusion around Mikey speaks both to Rex’s performance—he’s acting like it’s his last night on Earth—and to a flaw in Baker’s approach, brought powerfully into the light by the ending. Our perspective, our alignment with Mikey, is softly broken when he gets his comeuppance, when the whole town finally turns on him and he’s forced to run down the street totally naked. But although Mikey’s only real fear is being embarrassed, it’s played with such a jokiness—including a whip tilt to his penis—that it’s hard to take dramatically seriously, which isn’t necessarily a problem. Mikey is a guy who believe the universe is on his side and any failing, no matter how dramatic, is just another bump in the road to victory, although I imagine he would actually be ashamed of it, hiding it like he did with the Texas accent he “lost”.
But this becomes less justifiable in relation to other characters, Baker undercuts their victories whilst he undercuts Mikey’s defeats. When the drug dealer (July Hill) he’s been working under gives him the ultimatum that he must leave town right now, like a sheriff in a Western, she’s cut off by her bickering kids, comedically threatening a family meeting. And when Lexi gets the final word, calling Mikey a “homeless suitcase pimp” it’s emphasised with a very silly zoom into her lips, which out of context might seems just like a kind of corny choice, but in context seems a little demeaning, insufficiently serious.
In the background, we get these gestures to the 2016 Presidential Election and of course we’re going to align Mikey with Trump—despite Baker in a Sight & Sound interview avoiding saying it directly, it could not be clearer—both are empty bloviators, crushing everything in the rear view of their own success; they share that American restlessness, that need to keep going further, getting more, so they never have to feel the weight of life that hangs around them, especially in Trump this seems like a materialism in fear of the ultimate immateriality: death. But then, Texas City’s county Galveston voted for Trump, many people living in such abject conditions, on the outskirts of capitalism, did. Following from that, it seems more like Mikey should have gotten away with it, his comeuppance becomes a kind of wish fulfilment, that this kind of Capitalist spirit was defeated by community.
Or, it’s something that Baker didn’t really want to do, but felt he had to, so fobbed off with a serious lack of commitment, the embarrassingly juvenile did-it-really-happen ending shows he’s dedicated to Mikey’s perspective long after it stops being interesting. This provocative non-judgemental approach becomes a way to indulge in aligning too much with the exploiter and too little with the exploited. For what reason Baker wants to do this, I can only speculate.
1 — Sight & Sound, April 2022: ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ by Lou Thomas