Tool of the Trade
By Matthew Eng
Dir. Sean Baker, U.S., A24
Mikey Saber, the down-and-out, fortysomething protagonist of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, talks about the mechanics of receiving oral sex on camera with the same defensive, self-regarding conviction that Norma Desmond talked about dialogue and faces. This is another way of saying that although Mikey (not so much played as invented in real time by Simon Rex) may have once been a VIP in the adult entertainment business, these days he’s more consumed by the business of self-mythology. Case in point: Mikey laments the tragic loss of Paul Walker, not because he knew or respected the actor but because his death barred him from expanding on his Adult Video News–nominated performance as Walker’s Fast and the Furious character in future installments of a porn parody entitled The Fast and the Fury-Ass. He alleges that hundreds of PornHub users subscribe to his personal page to peruse his thousands of scenes, though it’s doubtful that these fans are more admiring of Mikey Saber than Mikey is of himself. He is, as one bedmate and Baker’s camera will eventually attest, exceptionally well endowed—though the size of the package hardly matters since its carrier is severely burned-out, discarded by an industry over which he claims to have once reigned. So, when Mikey—soiled, cash-strapped, and sporting enough bruises to look like he has just collided with the same bus he rode in on—parades into his small hometown in the opening movements of Baker’s hazardous screwball comedy, it is entirely fitting that the place from which he hails is called the Lone Star State.
It has been over 15 years since Mikey first departed Texas City for Hollywood and there is little fondness felt by those he left behind, least of all Lexi (Bree Elrod), his estranged and perpetually piqued wife whose history of drug abuse curtailed her own homegrown porn career. After much begging and bartering, Mikey manages to secure a bed in the chipped, peeling house inhabited by Lexi and her wizened mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), who smokes meth in the backyard to compensate for a reduced dosage of painkillers. Unable to secure even the most menial of jobs due to the nearly two-decade gap on his résumé, Mikey finds work selling pot for local drug maven Leondria (Judy Hill, a dry and regally nonchalant presence recognizable to anyone who watched her indelible performance as herself in Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?), and her butch daughter-cum-lieutenant June (Brittany Rodriguez, stealing scenes with a squint).Mikey makes a killing selling to the hardhats who work at the town’s oil refineries, recruits an obliging and encouraging companion in his scraggy next-door neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), and even finds his way back into Lexi’s bed once he becomes the trio’s unlikely breadwinner.
Mikey is only biding his time in Texas City, hoping to scrounge up enough money to make it back to L.A. and resuscitate his career—that is, until a serendipitous visit to a donut shop introduces him to his destiny: a cashier named Rayleigh, nicknamed Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a freckled, 17-year-old high schooler with a notable glint of lust in her eyes. Their relationship suggests a dirtbag adaptation of A Star Is Born in which an instantly smitten Mikey spots raw talent (and dollar signs) in the eyes of this pint-sized nymphette and wastes no time in grooming her as his one-way ticket back into the porn business.
Red Rocket turns out not to be the triumph-of-the-underdog story its premise might indicate, but rather a character portrait of an egomaniacal American hustler, set, quite tellingly, during the August before the calamitous 2016 presidential election. (At one point, Mikey rolls joints while watching Trump bloviate at the RNC.) For the better part of its runtime, we amble along with Mikey through his many escapades and misadventures. Baker doesn’t impose a tighter structure on the film nor sand down the bristly edges of a homecoming with ever more dire repercussions. Any impulses to sentimentalize Mikey’s gonzo predicament are swatted away like a fly in the face.
Red Rocket may seem to mark something of a departure for Baker, who made his name in the past decade as the writer, director, producer, and editor of Starlet (2012), Tangerine (2015), and The Florida Project (2017), each of which zeroed in on the personal dramas and risky existences of American women, many of them sex workers, scraping by, without support or protection, on society’s farthermost margins and frequently played by first-time or nonprofessional actors. But Mikey’s narrative harkens back to that of Lucky, the Ghanaian knockoff peddler and involuntary father at the center of Baker’s lo-fi, New York-set Prince of Broadway (2008), another film about a feckless man running away from responsibility. If Prince of Broadway ends with Lucky locating his moral compass and committing to a duty that may not even be rightfully his, no such epiphany awaits Mikey. What distinguishes Red Rocket from its predecessors is not its choice of protagonist but Baker’s and Rex’s scabrous and unsparing portrayal of a deeply unheroic man. Baker doesn’t completely deprive Mikey of the genuine empathy that suffuses his filmography, but he lavishes it more amply on those who suffer and are sabotaged by this serial narcissist, who is wholly uninterested in any conversation that does not immediately pertain to him and his interests.
Baker’s evolution as a filmmaker has been a thrill to witness thus far, and Red Rocket is one of his stronger achievements, more assured and considered in its direction and performances. The exasperating, high-decibel excesses of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Tangerine’s woman scorned and Bria Vinaite as The Florida Project’s hard-shelled single mother tended to overwhelm their movies, smothering and pulling focus away from the subtler efforts of scene partners, with little to no intervention from Baker. (Rodriguez may dominate Tangerine, but it’s costar Mya Taylor’s haunting, sphinxlike contemplation and air of lassitude that most fully enthrall.) To my mind, nothing in Baker’s filmography has solicited richer emotional investment than the urgent, mysterious bond between Dree Hemingway’s porn ingénue and Besedka Johnson’s isolated widow in Starlet.
That film lacks the anarchic energy that has defined Baker’s better-known efforts, instead conjuring a lithe and relaxed magic all its own, like the feeling of stretching one’s body after a midday nap. Red Rocket boasts its share of eardrum-shredding screaming matches, but Baker strikes a more fruitful balance between chaos and repose, farce and feeling than in his recent films. As cut by Baker with his usual verve, Mikey’s days and nights in Texas City flit by; numerous scenes start and stop in a matter of seconds. But within Red Rocket’s haste, Baker still finds time to quietly, fleetingly dwell in the mundane, as Mikey dozes beneath a tree, rides past spewing smokestacks on the bike that is his primary mode of transport, and coos at Lexi’s pit bull, the morning sun bearing down on them as test sirens from the refinery blare away, just a stone’s throw from the porch where he sits. In one scene, at Mikey’s behest, Strawberry sings an impromptu, piano-laden rendition of *NSYNC’s aughts-defining “Bye Bye Bye,” a song that functions as the film’s ominous theme song, interpolated, quoted, and warped five times throughout. As Strawberry performs, the camera eventually rests on Mikey’s face, a benumbed and sun-ripened mask, revealing nothing.
Shot on 16mm by cinematographer Drew Daniels, whose work with Baker has been far more eloquent than his showy trickery for the tiring maximalist Trey Edward Shults, the Texas City of Red Rocket is captured with a tawdry grace, its sunny, smoke-clogged skies tinged with sherbet hues. Clever, sometimes flamboyant pans, tilts, and zooms animate the film, alighting on a split-second of manic, beachside sex or the scowling face of a gruff and possibly grieving neighbor who exists as nothing but a tertiary character. Near the end, Daniels combs Elrod’s face in extreme, mobile close-up as Lexi delectates in one final, searing indictment of her no-good husband.
In such moments, Baker and his collaborators decentralize Mikey from his own film, bypassing him in certain scenes and shots to privilege his effect on others. When a towel-clad Mikey rambles on about his reasons for returning to Texas City—spinning a baffling yarn involving a trap house and a dead cat—the visual focus is split between Rex, in the shallow background, and Elrod, whose face is fixed into a grimace as Lexi endures her husband’s excruciating monologue. Baker’s peripheral characters can often verge on the thinnish—stock, skin-deep figures of malice and looniness—but not here. Within one of Baker’s more credibly integrated ensembles, Elrod is a particular highlight, injecting pathos into a character who might have merely been a shrew. The actress, who has worked primarily on stage in New York and regional theater, makes the stormy yet sympathetic Lexi into both her husband’s fiercest critic and his flesh-and-blood casualty, tending to personal yearnings that she hopes, foolishly but understandably, might be mitigated by Mikey. By contrast, Strawberry remains something of a flat figure, her sweet, lascivious compliance accruing some slyness—especially in a hilarious single-take in which a revelation is aired on a moving roller-coaster—yet failing to acquire any additional dimensions, in spite of Son’s abundant charm and twangy sincerity.
Fortunately, the poisonous, peacocking Mikey is enough of an inspired creation that Baker’s film can withstand such shortcomings. Red Rocket offers not a treatise against toxic masculinity, but an embodiment of it, eschewing grand statements that point back to its own topical import in favor of studying a singular character who boasts all of its worst traits with a shameless, belief-beggaring entitlement. It is a wonder that any of this works, much less that Mikey invites such ceaseless captivation rather than outright, alienating contempt. But he does. And whatever guilty fondness we may come to feel for the character derives from Rex’s remarkable and exceptionally inhabited performance, at once antic and adorable; it is one of the year’s most pleasing and unexpected acting triumphs. The actor, whose own stint acting in solo porn as a hard-up 19-year-old has been heavily recounted in the run-up to Red Rocket’s release, makes such exuberant use of his formerly untapped talents that one easily forgets the infamy that brought him to Baker’s attention. Rex works his upper body like a rubber band, flinging, jerking, and curving his sinewy arms and sturdy torso with restless elasticity, burrowing into scene after scene with restive, squirrelly zeal, earning a laugh just by pointlessly patting down his unchanging, close-cropped hair before knocking on somebody’s door. He careens through graceless transitions and motormouthed rants with the slick, declarative deliveries that indicate a veteran of both the Scary Movie franchise and the MTV VJ circuit. Mikey may be wild-eyed and keyed-up, but Rex remains in complete control of his faculties, exhibiting the ease of a comedic performer who could have conceivably held his own on a Preston Sturges set, consistently delighting without ever softening Mikey’s putrid core.
What a relief that Baker, avoiding the DiCaprios and McConaugheys who would have eaten their Oscars for a part this brash and beefy, implored Rex to shoot an audition on his iPhone with five minutes’ notice and proceeded to cast him in a film set to shoot in just three days. And what a relief that Rex, in turn, drove himself to Texas in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic to avoid a post-flight quarantine in order to accept the role of his career.
Red Rocket is made possible through the sort of open-minded leap of faith all too rare in casting today. Though the film is concerned with a distinctly American moral rot, its hubris and treachery are always rendered human-sized. Mikey ultimately gets his due comeuppance, expelled from his home by those he has leeched off and callously taken for granted. Baker’s ending stresses the perilous degree of Mikey’s desperation and vulnerability, the extent to which any hope he has to earn a buck or a bed rests with a rising high school senior and his inglorious dream of the fame they might achieve by fucking each other on film. Turns out, Baker’s gaze has been steadily narrowed on Mikey all along, conscious of the pox and pest he represents to every person who crosses his path. In the final moments of Red Rocket, we are made to see what Baker sees: a man tap dancing like mad, a man whose days are numbered.