NYFF 2021 review: Red Rocket (Sean Baker)

“Arthouse audiences will have a lot to chew on in Sean Baker’s latest, a covert political fable about the delusion of American exceptionalism.”

It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his novella The Kreutzer Sonata. American filmmaker Sean Baker seems to be advancing a similar thesis with his new film Red Rocket, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. A man, as long as he’s tall, handsome and in shape (relatively speaking), and presumably white, will always have another chance in life.

It is a distinctly American thrill to pull a fast one on unsuspecting suckers. That spirit of the hustle is alive and well, not just in Baker’s filmmaking (he casts major roles off the street, works with shoestring budgets, shoots movies on the sly, sometimes on iPhones) but also in his stories. His enterprising characters live on the margins, beyond the bounds of polite society, and their will to stretch a dollar is paramount over all other concerns. He’s also keenly aware that the foremost grifters are in it for kicks, to see what they can get away with. And on the evidence of Red Rocket, it’s a lot.

Red Rocket charts the misadventures of aging, down-on-his-luck, washed-up porn star Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), who returns home to Texas after many years. His estranged wife, also a washed-up porn star who moonlights as a hooker and crack addict, doesn’t trust him but takes him in anyway. Mikey soon becomes a drug dealer to make money, as he realizes that finding regular employment is a fool’s errand for adult performers. Always on the lookout for his next con, he sets his sights on luminescent, barely-legal local teen Strawberry who he begins prepping for porn superstardom while plotting his return to relevance as her manager (a “suitcase pimp”).

Baker has dated his story very precisely. He states that he wanted to set the film in a time of “greater innocence and naivete” which according to him was before the results of the 2016 American presidential election were known, after which we presumably lost all of that in collective disillusionment. He plays coy when asked to elaborate, only saying he wants “audiences from both sides of the aisle” to watch his films, which we imagine would not be the case were he to make his views public. Even so, we are left scratching our heads as to what snippets of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump add to the film.

He’s also coasting a bit on the model that made his magnificent previous film, The Florida Project, so successful. What was fresh there is stale here as we see him recycle essentially the same story structure. He first establishes the milieu of these characters at length, followed by a terrible event (for example, the kids burning a house in the previous film) that is at first nonchalantly tossed off, but then suddenly kicks things into high gear and leads to an inconclusive ending with a dash of wish fulfilment thrown in. The terrible event in this film shall go unmentioned, but as the film proceeds you begin to see its design, the artfully embedded hooks of exposition that will pay off later and the scaffolding holding up the entire enterprise.

For a film featuring several sexual encounters between porn stars – former and aspiring – it is surprisingly tame, with the sex scenes not only being very fleeting but also played for laughs and without much in the way of nudity. Following up on Mark Wahlberg and Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights and befitting a film about a porn star, Rex does appear full frontal in a couple of scenes, though he isn’t telling whether he used a prosthetic or not.

Also despite the lurid material, the film lacks a real edge, something that even The Florida Project had. Any sense of danger in the relationship between Mikey and Strawberry is dissipated by the fact that she is already sexually active before meeting him, their encounters are consensual, and she makes the first sexual move. Mikey makes jokes about Paul Walker’s death but that’s about as far as the film is willing to push against boundaries of taste. One wishes for David Cronenberg’s norm-pushing, bridge-burning mentality that makes his films feel uniquely dangerous in Hollywood cinema.

The enigma at the heart of this unmysterious film is that anyone is remotely fooled by such a transparent con artist as Mikey. And while the several strong women in the film express plenty of skepticism, one by one they all get seduced by him, either sexually or otherwise. Maybe this is where Baker’s elusive political commentary finds its expression, with his tale perhaps being a Trump allegory in miniature. Perhaps this is the collective naivete that he is referring to – he needed to set his story in 2016 as a timeframe when people would more credibly fall for such grifts. Baker seems to be insinuating that people’s inability to identify BS artists in their own lives is a precursor to their failure in identifying BS artists on their television screens. And we all know how that ends up.

Known for his unorthodox casting coups, Baker pulls off an act of resurrection that is almost biblical in scale. He has elevated a D-list celeb from the doldrums of obscurity to the hallowed steps of world cinema and even Academy Award consideration. This is the kind of career revitalization that Quentin Tarantino is known to have pulled off for certain celebs of yesteryear. Rex, a solo adult performer in real life many decades ago, is incredibly canny casting as the faded porn star. It is the role he was born to play, or at least the most consequential role of his career – designed explicitly for him by Baker. At 47, remnants of Rex’s leading man good looks and physique render him believably charismatic and attractive to the wide group of people that fall under his spell.

Rex cannot be faulted for labour as he delivers a performance of nervy energy that sweeps the film along. Yet there is something unconvincing in his brash façade. We could charitably conclude that these are the character’s moral misgivings that Rex has masterfully woven into his performance, but more likely we would attribute it to lack of an absolute commitment, an incomplete embrace of his enormously sleazy character. He lacks perhaps the overwhelming self-belief that you see in that guy on TV or even in several erstwhile scamster performances in cinema – say for instance Jon Voight in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22.

Baker always creates fantastic roles for women and the five actresses surrounding Rex all craft memorable characters. Bree Elrod as Mikey’s wife, Brenda Deiss as his mother-in-law, Suzanna Son as Strawberry and Judy Hill-Brittney Rodriguez as the drug-dealing duo all deserve a mention for their excellent performances. Of the bunch, only Elrod is a professional actress, though you wouldn’t know it from watching the film.

Red Rocket was made not just during the pandemic but because of it, as Baker, hard at work on another project, quickly changed track when the lockdown happened and dusted off this old idea with fellow writer Chris Bergoch. There are the tell-tale signs of pandemic filmmaking – handful of locations, limited number of characters, a low budget and a quick shoot. For all that, the film looks rather stunning with its saturated colours and wide-screen compositions. Shooting on film, DP Drew Daniels is able to find beauty and glamour even in the cheap suburban houses, the squalid interiors and the grotesque towering refineries that dot the landscape.

Received with some enthusiasm at Cannes, the film is hitting the fall festival circuit with a vengeance before domestic release in December. Given the euphoric reaction it received at the New York Film Festival, it could be an unlikely crowd-pleaser and have reasonable commercial and award season prospects. Goodwill for Baker after The Florida Project is sky-high as is the interest in Rex’s career resuscitation.

After previously presenting at Sundance, Locarno and Directors’ Fortnight, Baker made the deserved leap to Competition at Cannes, though some of the magic from his prior film is lost. Having an unlikeable lead character is a choice, but it shouldn’t prevent the film from duplicating the grand emotional resonance that The Florida Project had. Or maybe we have all tired our patience with scam artists. Baker is an enormously gifted filmmaker and his work here remains delightfully scuzzy, engrossing and alive. We hope that he returns with another transporting entry soon, at the highest echelons of world cinema where he belongs. For now, his latest film will do just fine and discerning arthouse audiences will have a lot to chew on in this covert political fable about the delusion of American exceptionalism.