Mikey Saber, the antihero of Sean Baker’s new film, has a bit of a problem during job interviews. He has a hole in his resume — stretching some 20 years.
He explains to the bosses at Dollar General or the local diner that he was “self-employed” or was in “entertainment.” The prospective employers just want to know what he was doing for so long. “I’m a porn star,” he finally admits.
That’s an exploitative field for the ultimate exploiter. Mikey is a good-looking dude who talks a mile-a-minute, a charmingly charismatic egoist — “Google me! Twenty-one million views on PornHub” — who holds grievances and is always dreaming big.
But when we meet him in “Red Rocket,” he’s a penniless washed up ex-porn star who has left Hollywood — driven out and beaten up, more likely — and taken a bus to a place he never thought he’d end up: begging his estranged wife to let him crash with her in Texas City, Texas. He can’t find a job — that porn thing is too much for many — so he ends up selling weed.
Mikey is a very hard character to play well but Simon Rex has his rascally number. We never fall for his manipulations but, from afar, admire his machinations, nonetheless. Rex is perfect playing the guy who’s the life of the party but not the guy you can ever rely on for anything. There’s a reason NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” opens the film and becomes a motif.
Baker — who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch — uses Mikey to tell us about ourselves. He’s a conman amid the sad and broken but honorable folk who live hard by the Gulf Coast gas refineries, which belch fire and smoke as they sit home watching TV and belching out cigarette smoke. Baker uses Mikey to warn us about self-deluded grifters and the havoc they can cause. Not coincidentally, the film is set as Donald Trump is about to win the White House.
This is a tricky movie, not a tale of redemption or a character study of a man rising up after hitting rock bottom. No, our man-boy Mikey is hiding out, riding a kids’ bike, not rekindling a romance with his wife (a brilliant Bree Elrod) or bettering himself. It will soon dawn on the viewer that he’s only out for himself and he thinks he’s found his ticket back to the big time — a 17-year-old worker at a doughnut shop.
If he can exploit this young woman — first-timer Suzanna Son, terrifically playing a girl-woman nicknamed Strawberry — into porn, he can return to his heights. “She’s my way back in,” he says to a friend. “I’m so blessed.”
Viewers will likely wince as he grooms her — “You could be a huge star,” he says to her — and “Red Rocket” is hard to watch once we realize that Mikey isn’t capable of real love, unless it’s self love. Their first date is at a strip club and they consummate their union in the bed of a pickup.
The film sits well in Baker’s career, whose previous works “The Florida Project” and “Tangerine” also dealt with sex workers on the margins and mixed professional actors and real people. “Red Rocket” is filled with Baker’s people — the deluded and surrendered, those drifting, paycheck to paycheck, far from the bright lights, unless they’re the refinery lights.
A critical event towards the end turns into a watershed moment for Mikey, a test of his character. But if you’re looking for a miracle from him, you’re as deluded as he is. An open-ended ending awaits, with a final scene open to many interpretations. “Red Rocket” could have soared in a traditional Hollywood feel-good way but instead stays small and down to the ground, sticking with you uncomfortably and brilliantly.
“Red Rocket,” an a24 release, is rated R for violence, language, nudity and sex. Running time: 128 minutes. Three stars out of four.