The Disintegration of a Suitcase Pimp: Red Rocket (2021)

"I'm giving up, I know for sure

I don't wanna be the reason for your love no more

(Bye bye!) I'm checkin' out, I'm signin' off

I don't want to be the loser and I've had enough"

NSYNC "Bye Bye Bye"

Director Sean Baker loves to turn his camera on the unseen parts of American life--the downtrodden, the forgotten, the ones who slipped through the cracks of late stage capitalism. In less capable hands this could devolve into poverty porn, but Baker's camera eye is never exploitative, it is tender and dignified, showing people just trying to survive in a cruel world that would let them drown and never extend a helping hand. His newest film Red Rocket (2021) has more of a darker tinged humor than his previous efforts, but is no less successful at exposing the humanity of people with nowhere to go and in the process test our own perceptions of what makes a good person.

Simon Rex plays Mikey Saber, a past-his-prime former porn star who has retuned to his small Texas hometown after living it up in LA for decades. He doesn't have a penny to his name and unceremoniously drops himself at the doorstep of his long estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her chain-smoking mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Initially, Mikey uses his quick talking abilities and charm to wheedle his way into staying at their place, but eventually after wearing out his welcome he turns to selling weed to generate some income. Just when it seems he might be getting his life back on track, comparatively, and reconciling with Lexi, he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son) a naïve 17-year-old cashier who works at a local donut house. Mikey becomes obsessed with her, trying to date her in secret and perhaps introduce her into the sex worker lifestyle with him as her lover and manager.

The casting of Simon Rex as Mikey is a genius decision as his own life trajectory mirrors Mikey's. Rex started out doing porn early in his career in the '90s before he made his break into the mainstream by becoming a VJ on MTV in 1995. I'm sure more than one person upon hearing about his casting in Red Rocket thought to themselves "Wow, I haven't thought about Simon Rex in decades!" That being said, Rex's real persona does a lot of the heavy lifting to make his character in the film feel believable, and he is fantastic in the role, with great comedic timing and a natural charisma that sucks in the viewer. 

Make no mistake, Mikey is a manipulative and lazy narcissist who is grooming an underage girl and also cheating on his wife while simultaneously using her as a place to stay. However, because Mikey is the protagonist, it is natural for one to want to root for him, partly because he's an affable guy who might be capable of a redemption arc, but it is also a testament to how these types of people victimize others. They have to be funny and charming to dazzle people and lure them into a sense of security. 

The title of the film, Red Rocket, could be a reference to the slang term for an erect dog's penis, and also to the way Mikey uses his sexual prowess to get women to do what he wants, waving around his member talking up the size of it and his bedroom skills in a way to assert dominance and prove his worth. He does this to both the men and women in his life, a sad testament to toxic masculinity being the only thing shaping his self image. 

Red Rocket is beautifully filmed with a rich saturated color palette and assured cinematography. There is an interesting contrast between the dusty ombre Texas sunsets and the harsh cheap lighting of the house Mikey stays in, a light that is unflattering and sallow, highlighting the struggle of the people within. Some of the humor comes from the music choices, particularly one sequence set to boy band NSYNC's 2000 hit song "Bye Bye Bye". This song in particular is used several times, evoking a different mood each time, one time even played in reverse to create a creepy atmosphere.

This film might be a hard sell to some people, because it focuses on a terrible person doing objectively horrible things, but at the end of the day depiction doesn't equal endorsement, and sometimes it can be fascinating to watch a narrative where the protagonist isn't an especially morally upstanding person. 

—Michelle Kisner