Red Rocket (Review)

To begin with, Red Rocket is one of the most familiar of tales: washed up ‘star’ ends up in their home town, far from fame, and tries to cling onto a narrow reflection of fame. When you get too small for the big sea, the small pond is a safer home, and this is where our protagonist, Mickey (Simon Rex) has ended up. The difference, at the start, is the framing. This fall from stardom is a more traditionally sordid one, as Mikey is a former adult-film star. This is knowingly juxtaposed with the character, a perennial child in an adult’s body, somebody who hasn’t grown up and who only understands the world through sex and transactions. This being a Sean Baker film, it is not puritanical or sex negative; at no point does it present anything other than an understanding that sex work is real work. However, this being a Sean Baker film, it is aware of what capitalism, and the contemporary political climate, has done to these areas.

This is the tale of a huckster, first and foremost. It is about a con man, who has succeeded in one area, that is now attempting to make his way to higher heights, swanning in from the bright lights of the big city to use working class communities to facilitate his ascent. It’s about a person doing this in 2016. It’s about a sex-obsessed misogynist that thinks they can manipulate everybody into facilitating their desires, tricking them into thinking they too are being built up. And, to make it even more clear, at points we watch characters watch the footage building up to the 2016 American election. Our character’s arrival is paired with Trump’s nomination, or at least mention of it; a later moment of clear dishonesty, as our character seems to be being successful in their cons, is paired with a broadcast about Hilary Clinton’s ’emails’. It’s not subtle, but it is entertaining.

It’s entertaining because it knows exactly what it is, and how much filth it can wallow in. It gets its kicks from presenting an overtly objectional figure, one that is a magnet for our hate, but one that thinks they are winning everybody over. The distance here is wonderful, as we bear witness to his sins while he thinks he is getting away with it. Translating the Trumpian dream, for want of a better word (a figure that exists as a satirical mirror of Trump as well as a personification of a worldview or a set of values), into a character that is referred to as a ‘suitcase pimp’ is deeply satisfying. Though, the film doesn’t limit itself to easy wins and simple catharsis. This is mostly a presentation of American decline, as shitty weed wrapped up in American flag rolling paper (I believe that’s what you call blunt satire) is sold directly to the workers. And they buy it. All the while, this same figure (that’s selling an easy high laced with patriotism) is grooming a child. Which, well, brings us into the most overtly controversial element of the film.

At the centre of Red Rocket is the sexual relationship between a washed up adult and a 17 year-old child. In one sequence, I do think the film oversteps in its visual presentation, making a point with its images that had already been made and that didn’t need reinforcing in this way. That aside, the plotline is very purposeful and gives the movie more substance than it would have as a more straight forward satire. The grooming element, and the promises of stardom, obviously reflect back on our central messianic-porn-king, our pope of the sordid. But, through this, the film tackles a wider social decay. This is a man who can only understand the world through sex. His formative years were defined by how sex was sold to him by an exploitive capitalist system, and how that has warped his interactions with society. His only successes have come through him using sex and we see, time and time again, how his position in porn was deeply parasitic. His achievements, so to speak, derive from women yet he steals the focus and attention (their success or talent always reframed as his). This is nicely paired with a character arc (belonging to a supporting player) about stolen valour, presenting how masculinity is predatory and appropriative (but having a more interestingly empathetic lens for certain people). We also are left to confront things that happen. Young girls are groomed into pornography and are deeply damaged by a patriarchal system built to use them. This is a thing that happens. This film is just a collection of moments that personify, or allegorise, this reality.

It all hits home through smart positioning, it is a funny film in which the tone helps to clarify the perspective. We laugh at the figure and realise that the stylised world around them is one of subjectivity. The beautiful cinematography helps this, dreamlike framing and amazing vistas. There’s a romanticism to the film, one that cuts against its content in a way that is deeply purposeful. This is one man’s view of the world, of what he thinks is his kingdom. Slowly, the film reveals this is all delusion and uses it as the larger joke. The final moments give us a great satisfaction, bending the film around cleverly into a post-Trump work, and meaning it doesn’t feel like a limp satire of the past. Though, it never would be that. By focusing on wider individuals and being clearly symbolic for systems and cycles, the film makes it clear that one man isn’t the issue. The film makes it clear that the issue is the environment, the constructed environment, that allows these people to prosper. Then the film shows them for who they are.

It’s not subtle; it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t want to be. But, even when it’s being blunt, the world is sold enough (through Baker’s great grasp of humanity) that it manages to exist as a compelling drama, and character study, that exists alongside a loud, but effective, satire. Baker cares about the right people and his disdain is in the right place. We, the audience, get to surf enjoyment and discomfort in the most capable of hands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s