Red Rocket (2021)
Directed by: Sean Baker | 131 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, Sophie, Marlon Lambert, Judy Hill, Brittney Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone, Suzanna Son
What if Dirk Diggler from ‘Boogie Nights’ (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) hadn’t grown up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, but in a small Texas hamlet? Then you get Mikey “Saber” Davies, the main character of ‘Red Rocket’. Mikey is once again having a lesser moment in his own illustrious porn career. This time he’s in so much trouble that bruised and bruised, he has to knock on his estranged wife’s front door. His wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) sees the storm coming. When Mikey comes for a second chance, it usually brings a lot of trouble through the front door. Without turning into poverty porn, the painfully comic ‘Red Rocket’ cleverly captures a turbulent social environment.
Director Sean Baker, known for exotic movie house birds ‘The Florida Project’ (2017) and ‘Tangerine’ (2015), filmed for ‘Red Rocket’ on 16mm and the result is impressive. It not only looks beautiful and dreamy from time to time, but also dynamic and dirty. Again Baker, who also edited the film, wrote the screenplay with Chris Bergoch. The two companions show great compassion for those who march outside the treadmill of bourgeois life. In addition, Baker likes to pick people off the street for his cast. Often this leads to gems on screen that you couldn’t have come up with in a million years, so again with Ethan Darbone playing the incredibly dopey Lonnie. In addition, as with ‘The Florida Project’, the production work of permanent employee Stephonik shines again. And that on a tight budget of 1.2 million by American standards.
‘Red Rocket’ flows together with lead actor Mikey, his energy propelling the film forward. You travel on an odyssey of a top-notch opportunist and part-time liar who believes most in his own bullshit. He’s a slicker, talks your ears full, lies some more for the show and packs you up if you’re not paying attention. Despite this, Mikey is not spiteful, which is certainly also due to interpreter Simon Rex, who as a B-category celebrity brings an important piece of life experience for this demanding role.
Although Mikey has been spat out by his environment several times, his chats and performances in bed also made a fortune. But do people still fall for it? In that regard, the relationship between Mikey and seventeen-year-old ingénu Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who is to become the ticket to new success, is quite uneasy. At the same time, it’s a revelation about how intertwined the US sex industry is with fleeting success and fame, often a desperate way out of poverty. Between nose and lips, the film offers a glimpse into a huge gap between rich and poor. Mikey haggles from neighborhood to neighborhood on a borrowed bicycle, with a constant smog from heavy industrial violence chugging in the background. Is that rosy glow during the sunset trips mainly mother nature or human pollution?
Baker’s film is ultimately not ‘Boogie Nights’, perhaps it is more like Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ – a lyrical and at the same time mocking song about America’s drain. Sometimes you feel sorry for Mikey, but like a revolving door criminal he no longer sees his own lies. He is such an anti-hero that Harmony Korine (‘Springbreakers’, 2013) and the Safdie brothers like to perform (‘Good Time’, 2017 and ‘Uncut Gems’, 2019): dream and nightmare in one. Feverishly, these filmmakers show the unbridled American desire for success from the perspective of the underclass, where everyone is fighting for a little more money and followers on Instagram. Baker could have shortened the film a bit, because at some point Mikey’s meandering moral compass threatens to feel slightly repetitive.