Loathsome lead character fuels action in Red Rocket

The poster for the movie Red Rocket features a nude Simon Rex inside a giant sprinkled doughnut, suggesting it might be some kind of naughty sex farce.

It is emphatically not that. This is director Sean Baker’s followup to his much-hailed 2017 offering The Florida Project and it follows in that film’s template, focusing its lens on the anonymous denizens of American flyover country.

In this case, the locale has shifted to Texas City, a depressed outpost in the Lone Star state, and former home to one Mikey Saber (Rex), who returns on a bus with $20, the clothes on his back and bruises from a beatdown he suffered back in Los Angeles.

Mikey has returned to plead for a second chance from Lexi (Bree Elrod), hoping to at least be allowed to stay with her until he gets back on his feet.

“It will be like when we were married,” he tells Lexi.

“We are still married,” she responds.

Yes, Mikey is not one to dwell on inconvenient detail when there is bluster to be blathered. He succeeds in winning over Lexi and her mom Lil (Brenda Deiss) with a promise to pay much needed rent.

A24 Films

Simon Rex plays Mikey Saber, a reprehensible narcissist and former porn star, in Red Rocket.

And indeed, he proves to be as good as his word after a comic montage of failed job interviews forces Mike to explain the 19-year gap in his resumé, during which he had toiled as a porn star in L.A.

His natural propensity for the hustle gets him in good with Leondria (Judy Hill), a major marijuana dealer in town. Mikey succeeds in socking away some money, and he gets to spout about his lurid accomplishments in the porn biz to impressionable young neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone).

But Mikey’s world shakes up when he meets a 17-year-old beauty named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) at the local doughnut shop. It is a mark of Mikey’s overall awfulness that he sees this lovely young woman and starts calculating how he might use her to get back into the porn business.

The film was shot during lockdown, but it is pointedly set in the year 2016, and presidential candidate Donald Trump’s presence seeps in here and there throughout the movie like a sulfurous gas leak.

This is deliberate. Director Baker tells a story of a Trumpian figure writ small, an exploitative narcissist who lies and cheats and avoids any real responsibility with the practised finesse of a bullfighter.

It’s a bit of a problem for the film that this is a difficult character to live with over a languorous 130-minute running time. Simon Rex, who is best known for his broadly comic turns in several Scary Movie parodies, proves to be a revelation here playing a truly awful human being who uses charm as a bludgeon.

The fact that Rex himself dabbled in porn in his early years possibly made him sympathetic to Mikey’s plight, but he resists playing down the character’s dark, dark core.

The film calls to mind Daryl Duke’s unsung 1973 drama Payday, which cast Rip Torn as a similarly inclined character who uses his quasi-celebrity to exploit others with sickening abandon. But that film had the benefit of a comeuppance that is denied here… much as it was denied Trump, come to think of it.


Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

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