Sean Baker is one of America’s most innately empathetic filmmakers, a man who crafts character studies of complex working class characters that refuse to rob them of their agency. They may not be uniformly likeable, yet Baker never makes them mere tragic figures in the way other social realist directors easily would. With the director’s latest work, the extraordinary Red Rocket, he’s made what is very much the antithesis of the typical Sean Baker film, a jet black comedy featuring one of the most profoundly unlikeable protagonists in recent memory.
Red Rocket is set within a milieu typical of the director, featuring a lead character who has a background in sex work, and a wider ensemble of people unable to afford the luxury of escaping their cash strapped town. But any similarities with the filmmaker’s previous productions remain strictly on the surface, as Red Rocket frequently subverts expectations to the extent that it often feels like a mainstream studio comedy beamed in from another reality altogether. Those left moved by the tragic childhood tale of The Florida Project may find themselves baffled that the same director has returned with something so provocative. As for those who don’t walk out in disgust, the bigger surprise might be that Baker manages to find something genuinely bittersweet within such a deeply uncomfortable character study.
This lead figure is Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a former porn star still coasting on former glories. Even though he’s long out of the business, and has moved back to his hometown to find work, he can’t help but brag about his success by showing some of his classic clips in job interviews, or highlighting that he won an adult entertainment award for “Best Oral” three years in a row (an honor which everybody reminds him should have gone to the actress in each scene, not him). This proves unsuccessful, so Mikey resumes his teenage job of drug dealing, and moves back in with his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss).
Red Rocket’s opening act is a familiar but consistently funny example of a classic comedy narrative, the trope of the failed celebrity forced to move back to a small town after their career implodes. Mikey Saber is essentially an X-rated Kenny Powers from HBO’s Eastbound & Down, or a transatlantic Alan Partridge type figure; a person so consumed with prior successes that the self awareness about his current situation has yet to hit. Mikey Saber may initially appear like he’s simply more motormouthed than those two characters (brought to life by Danny McBride and Steve Coogan, respectively), but in Rex’s hands, it feels like more than a revitalization of a familiar comic formula. Red Rocket’s lead actor plays his character as a classic comic fool in this amusing opening half hour, only for Baker to reveal a darker, infinitely more sinister side to the protagonist.
It all starts when Mikey pays a visit to the donut shop for the first time. The character meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old girl working behind the counter that he’s immediately smitten with. If Red Rocket’s air of discomfort isn’t thick enough by this stage, it will be when Mikey’s intentions are quickly revealed. He senses that this teenager could be the next big porn star and his ticket to the big league, so he worms his way into Strawberry’s life, and starts to groom her for the position — initially as her friend, and then as a boyfriend.
The mounting list of bad decisions Mikey makes, coupled with the general anxiety Baker provokes throughout in Red Rocket, has inspired a lot of surface level comparisons to Uncut Gems. For me, that comparison only makes sense in terms of the film’s humor, the gag hit rate managing to remain surprisingly high even as the story at the center is designed to make viewers feel nauseous. Both Baker and Rex understand that with every revelation — Mikey is revealed to be even more pathetic, and so the character can still function effectively as a comedic fool even as he exposes himself to be an even more morally repugnant figure than initially introduced.
Baker has said that he expects Red Rocket to generate controversy because of its subject matter, but the characterization of Mikey should neuter much of it. Similarly, the director and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch afford Strawberry as much agency as they can, without ever forgetting that she’s being used by an older man with criminal intentions. This aspect is more likely to be up for debate, but I think the film’s innate self awareness ensures that it handles such problematic material delicately.
Red Rocket is set during the summer of 2016, with the news of the republican and democratic national conventions often heard in the background. Baker has said that this era was the last time America felt like it was innocent, with everyone assuming Donald Trump would lose, although many have jumped to the conclusion that the story is a wider parable reflecting the 45th U.S. president’s illicit tactics to maintain success and authority. Personally, I felt this decision was less allegorical, and more a term of sheer practicality from a narrative perspective — if Red Rocket was set any later than 2016, Mikey Saber would have just set up an OnlyFans account in act one, and he’d never follow up on any of the bad ideas he might have had. When viewed in terms of the director’s statements about a lost innocence, then it’s easy to feel a palpable bittersweetness; a time when people wouldn’t automatically assume the worst of others, meaning the intentions of someone as odious as Mikey would just go unchecked. He represents the darkness that has always been visibly bubbling under the surface.
Red Rocket is Baker’s strongest work to date, a film much smarter (and far funnier) than its provocative synopsis would suggest.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.