Sean Baker is carving out a unique niche for himself as a chronicler of the worst aspects of modern life; his matter-of-fact approach in The Florida Project was a genuine eye-opener. His latest, Red Rocket, is even more timely in describing a certain kind of person who rarely gets screen-exposure; poverty-stricken, desperate characters struggling to survive in a world that doesn’t give a damn. While trigger warnings have to be given for extreme sexual content here, and audiences should self-select accordingly, Red Rocket is a riveting study of American failure circa 2021.
Simon Rex plays Mikey Sabre, a washed-up porn star returning to Texas with nothing going right; part of the problem is that Sabre can’t stop eulogising his own previous, minor successes. Sabre forces his way back into the life of his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her aged mom Lil (Brenda Deiss), who barely have a roof over their heads as it is. Sabre finds a way to contribute to the rent, albeit by selling drugs, and believes he has a way back to the big time when he finds a new ticket to exploit; teenage donut-shop worker Strawberry (Susanna Son) who he hopes to coach to a career as a pornographic actress. Strawberry is keen on Sabre and impressed his fictional lifestyle (Sabre gets her to drop him off outside a stranger’s posho house for the sake of appearances) but the savvy Lil is correct to say that Sabre is ‘nothing but trouble’ and so it proves.
Red Rocket’s raw edge may be unpalatable to awards viewers and audiences; it’s highly disturbing to see a 17 year old being groomed for such a career, and so willingly going along with the dangers surrounding it. But Strawberry’s attachment is less to Sabre’s dream as it is to the man himself, and the fraying of his plan turns into a full unravelling, domestic violence and a dramatic accident that is squarely Sabre’s fault. Rex, Elrod and Deiss all do great work here, with Rex’s portrait of a hustler without a coherent hustle evoking Midnight Cowboy pathos; scampering down the street naked with NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye on the soundtrack provides a visual for his humiliating decline.
Baker’s films are refreshingly now, and Red Rocket is one of the first films to really deal with the legacy of Trump’s presidency in terms of ordinary people. Sabre placidly accepts Trump’s speeches on election fraud as they play on his tv, and scrambles like a bug under huge bill-hoardings bearing the name of the former president; like those high-flyers he seeks to emulate, Mikey Sabre cannot accept any moral lesson that his own greed and stupidity might be the cause of his downfall. The fish still stinks from the head down, and Red Rocket is a gritty, powerful film about the way America has changed in the last five years, illuminated by a star-making performance from Rex; even if mainstream awards voters looked the other way, you’re old enough to make your own choices, and Red Rocket’s impact leaves a mark.
Thanks to Universal Pictures for access. Red Rocket hits UK screens on March 11th 2022.
Not much of a comedy but neither so gritty as to be off-putting. Excellent performances but I felt it was a bit too pointedly political for the material. Reference Midnight Cowboy in similar fashion and politics falls to pieces. Overlong by about 15 minutes and some characters who have nowhere to go. The car pile-up seemed very much tacked-on for no reason especially as the denouement would have been the same anyway. Rex and Son gave refreshing performances. Interesting that Rex has two starring roles coming up but Son has nothing at all on her agenda.
I’d sort of like to be the kind of person who can appreciate these types of films. But I just don’t. Anything labeled “gritty” is an automatic “no” for me. They just impact me too much…..films like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Traffic” they just haunt me. I know these worlds exist and something must be done, but I guess just don’t want to look it straight in the face.
That is fair enough. I’d say this is ten times grittier than both the films you mention. I note Rex won best actor at the Independent Spirit awards, but the reason for me giving so much detail on a film like this is to make sure prospective audiences know what they’re getting into. This is very close to the edge in terms of what an audience will accept in a film.
I think I’ll have a go at this. Yep.
That’s the spirit! One for the grown-ups…
If this is gritty and raw why does the poster (the guy in the big pink donut) look like it’s for a Blake Edwards sex-comedy?
I can see that. I’d agree that the poster suggests something more comical and upbeat than the film delivers.