In “Red Rocket”, if Sean Baker’s goal was to create the worst person ever to be put on screen, he didn’t miss by much. For the sake of clarity, there’s nothing wrong with telling stories about bad people. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that all the main characters in movies need to be likable. If they were, we would never have Daniel Day Lewis’ heartless oilman Daniel Plainview from 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” – one of the greatest characters and greatest performances in cinema history (yep, I said it).
The problem with Mikey, Simon Rex’s “Red Rocket” lead character, isn’t just that he’s a reprehensible and morally bankrupt human being. He’s also a rambling, unpleasant and insufferable presence, and no amount of good acting from Rex can make him the slightest bit appealing. Perhaps most off-putting is Baker’s approach to Mikey as the character’s behavior grows more and more repugnant.
Sean Baker (who serves as director, co-writer, co-producer, and editor) certainly doesn’t put his stamp of approval on Mikey’s behavior. But he doesn’t exactly wrestle with it either. Instead you can see him working hard to make Mikey come across as charming. It doesn’t work. I’m guessing Baker was trying to strike some kind of balance in our reactions to the character. But I could never muster anything other than utter disdain for the guy, and the longer he stayed on screen the more I wanted the movie to be over.
We first meet Mikey as he’s hopping off a bus in Texas City. His body is bruised from head to toe and he has nothing with him except the clothes on his back. He walks to a low income neighborhood, stopping at the house of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) who lives with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Mikey desperately needs a place to crash for a couple of days, but neither Lexi or her mother want anything to do with him (lots of old baggage comes to light later). But we quickly see his snake oil salesman side and soon he’s convinced his ex to let him stay until he’s up on his feet.
The problem with Mikey is that he’ll never be up on his feet. He’s a walking train wreck. We learn he’s back in Texas City after being ran out of Los Angeles where he worked in the porn industry. He wants to go back, but it’ll take some cash. To his credit, he tries to get a legitimate job. But he’s turned down whenever his work history comes up. So he turns to selling weed for a old acquaintance and local drug dealer named Leondria (Judy Hill).
A big chunk of the movie follows this disgraced slug of a man as he cons nearly everyone he meets for his own selfish gain. Whether it’s his wife(ish) and her mother, or an easily impressed neighbor named Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), or 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works part time at a donut shop. It’s when Mikey meets the latter that the film descends to the deepest depths of the gutter. It would be different if the film had something meaningful to say or to tackle. Instead it burrows deeper into the muck, seemingly enjoying itself, hiding behind the veil of “art”, and giving us nothing of value to chew on.
That may sound like a prickly and abrasive take-down of the movie but don’t worry, “Red Rocket” lives down to that impression. There’s really nothing to take away from Baker’s film. It’s tempting to commend the movie’s representation of Southern poverty, but even that’s handled with a sliver of condescension. So we’re left a movie that’s biggest goal seems to be to push the envelope. And while doing so, it may let us in on the lead character’s repulsive mindset. But it could leave some questioning the filmmaker’s. “Red Rocket” is out in limited release.