Is Sean Baker the most important American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years? A credible argument could certainly be made. There are of course other candidates like Barry Jenkins or Robert Eggers but Baker is in many ways doing something much more unique and excelling at it to levels that are both unlikely and incredibly impressive. Of course “emerged in the last ten years” is perhaps a matter of perspective. Baker has been making films as far back as the year 2000 and also did some television work but for the average film enthusiast he really emerged in 2015 with his film Tangerine, which looked at about twenty four hours in the lives of two transgender sex workers in West Hollywood with a great deal of energy and wit. That however proved to mainly be an appetizer for what came next: 2017’s The Florida Project. That film sported a larger budget and featured a supporting performance by Willem Dafoe, but remained true to his style of embedding himself into a marginal American community and building a strongly humanistic but at times wickedly funny story about what it means to get by on the fringes of society. That was my favorite movie of 2017 and to my endless frustration it never really managed to become an award season staple that year and only managed one Academy Award nomination for Dafoe, but the fact that such an unconventionally made film even got as close as it did was impressive. To follow that up he’s delivered another film that gives voice to the voiceless, albeit one that’s more prickly and complicated than his last two films.
Baker’s latest film is called Red Rocket and it finds him in a town called Texas City, Texas, which is a sort of coastal suburb on the periphery of Houston and frankly doesn’t look like a very pleasant place to live, or at least not the parts of it that are in this movie. It’s in the shadow of a bunch of oil refineries and petrochemical plants and most of the people are living in these tiny houses that appear to be maybe a rung or two above trailer homes. Our subject Mikey (Simon Rex) grew up in this town and has a history there but left and became a pornstar under the alias Mikey Saber. He seems to have had a falling out with the industry though and at the beginning of the movie he gets off of a bus covered in bruises and with about twenty dollars to his name. His first stop is the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who lives with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), and both appear to be drug users. Desperate he agrees to pay them two hundred dollars rent a month to board with them and, lacking non-pornographic references, begins selling weed to make cash. While doing this he finds himself in a donut shop where he spots a seventeen year old girl (Suzanna Son) working there and susses out that she has some rebellious tendencies and starts plotting to recruit her into the pornography to get back in the good graces of that industry.
Unlike Baker’s previous films, which starred non-actors in their lead roles this one does a have a professional at its center… sort of. I hadn’t heard of Simon Rex before this movie came to light but he has been something of a figure in the entertainment industry before this. He was apparently an MTV VJ in the 90s and during the 2000s he was in a string of fourth-rate parody films like Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie as well as a bunch of direct-to-DVD crap. I have no idea where Baker got the idea of casting this guy in one of his movies but it seems to have been a stroke of brilliance because Rex is electric here. “Mikey Saber” has this fascinating used car salesman energy where he exerts this incredible confidence in all situations and seemingly talk his way out of any jam despite basically having nothing to show for it. That is an important skill for him because if he didn’t look the way he did and didn’t have this charismatic personality someone probably would have slit his throat by now… or maybe he would have become a better person if he didn’t have these skills to fall back on, but either way there version of him we see here is pretty much a monster… albeit a very entertaining monster to watch.
Red Rocket can legitimately be called a comedy, albeit a very dark comedy. Mikey’s patter and general shamelessness is really funny, as are the reactions to him by the people who see through his bullshit. In this sense the film feels a bit like a throwback to what Baker was doing in Tangerine and will perhaps make it a little harder to recommend than The Florida Project, which had a bit more melodrama and neither of Baker’s previous films focused on a character that is as repellent as Mikey proves to be over time. Make no mistake, this guy is scum; he has seemingly no qualms whatsoever about starting a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old (when he learns she’s that age, the age of consent in Texas, he happily proclaims she’s “legal as an eagle!” with seemingly no self-awareness about how this sounds) and it’s also clear that he views this “relationship” entirely as a manipulation; he holds no delusions that this is a genuine romance but continues with it anyway. Despite that, you as an audience member still kind of find yourself on this guy’s side to some extent; not rooting for him per se but on some level you admire the hustle and you want to see how this all plays out and that all kind of comes back to Simon Rex and his performance and how perfectly he defines this guy.
Baker shot this film on 16mm rather than the 35mm of The Florida Project or the shot-on-iPhone cinematography of Tangerine and that choice kind of emphasizes the dustiness of this Texas location and kind of evokes the look that Andrea Arnold explored with American Honey. The film is perhaps less interested in finding sympathetic side characters here than he was in his previous films as pretty much everyone in Mikey’s orbit has some degree of criminality with the possible exception of Strawberry herself, who nonetheless has some negative sides to her as well, but the film finds endearing quirks to a lot of these characters and does build out elements to all of them so that you understand their lives. The decision to set the film in 2016 right as the election was going on in the background felt like a bit of a misstep; it kind of suggested the film was meant to be some sort of commentary on how that election looked on the ground in a red state but it doesn’t go too far with that. Looking back though I think I get the decision a little better as I think it’s trying to make a comparison between Trump and the Simon Rex character as both are opportunistic bullshiters who don’t have a good long term plan but even looked at in that dubious light I don’t think Mikey Saber can be described as being nearly as successful at bullshit as Trump and I don’t think it’s really a perfect metaphor. Still, on its own terms this is one of the more successful attempts I’ve ever seen at trying to build a movie around a total shithead who you really can’t get behind and one more bold look at a marginalized America from Sean Baker.
****1/2 out of Five