Erstwhile MTV VJ and 2000s It Boy actor Simon Rex makes a, frankly, shocking comeback in Sean Baker’s latest slice of life realist drama, Red Rocket. Starring as Mikey, a washed-up porn star, Rex (who has his own history with the adult entertainment industry) gives the kind of livewire performance that makes you twitchy and itchy, like a tick burrowing into your skin before you can stop it. He’s not quite as deeply unnerving as Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, but he’s close. Mikey is a fast-talking hustler, a flagrant asshole who takes advantage of everyone around him to increasingly disastrous results. He’s the kind of character you want to chuck into the sun, and Rex plays him with fearless abandon, absolutely nailing that type of character to the core. Maybe you’ve never known a washed-up porn star, but we’ve all known someone like Mikey, and Rex ruthlessly evokes those memories with his performance.
In a way, Red Rocket is about the chain of events that leads up to one of those, er, colorful local news appearances that occur in the more economically challenged areas of the country, where it sometimes feels like the local news crews are just out there shopping for the biggest hick to put on TV. In another way, Red Rocket is the origin story for the next breakout porn star a la Sasha Grey. Mikey is the nexus around which these events revolve. Following up The Florida Project, a humanist look at the transient community in Orlando, Baker delves into coastal Texas and a world of working poor who subsist on drug dealing and sex work. Mikey fled his hometown twenty years before with his girlfriend and cam partner, Lexi (Bree Elrod); she returned home, he didn’t. Mikey only returns when he has, apparently, exhausted all opportunities in Los Angeles. Despite his self-aggrandizing proclamations of being a five-time AVN award winner, he turns up at Lexi’s house sporting a black eye and no money or possessions.
But Mikey isn’t the type to stay down long, if only because he will callously exploit everyone around him. Soon enough, he’s f-cking Lexi so he can sleep in a bed, not on the couch, he’s got a neighbor with a case of severely misplaced hero worship driving him around town for free, and he’s grooming Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the not-quite-eighteen-year-old doughnut shop girl, to use her as his ticket back into the adult industry in California. Much of Red Rocket is spent praying that Strawberry sees through Mikey before he does too much damage to her and being desperately afraid that she won’t. Baker’s lens, though, imposes nothing on Mikey or any of the characters in Rocket. He is not a clinical filmmaker, but he manages a noncommittal distance that is almost documentarian in tone. The world of Red Rocket is so specific and so tangibly realized that it feels like peering into real lives, not watching a film, a feeling enhanced by Baker’s use of many non-professional actors. As with Chloe Zhao’s work, this lends a lived-in authenticity to his films.
Which enhances how bloody uncomfortable it is at times. People losing their minds over the unconsummated age-gap romance of Licorice Pizza are going to have an aneurysm at the actively predatory, raunchy age-gap relationship of Red Rocket. Mikey is straight up preying on Strawberry, not to mention how he uses Lexi, sexually and emotionally, and how he manipulates everyone else around him, too. The best thing about him is that he deals pot to the guys who work at the local oil refinery, in every other respect, Mikey is a loser and a user and it’s only because the world is f-cking unfair that a meteor doesn’t fall out of the sky and crush him like a bug. If you’re looking for catharsis or a film that will feed your moral outrage, this is NOT it. Sean Baker has no interest in making work that cut and dry. If, however, you’d like to see Simon Rex give a blistering performance as an irredeemable asshole you will actively root for a shark to swallow whole, Red Rocket is the film for you.
Red Rocket is now playing exclusively in theaters.