With nothing but a few bruises, twenty-two dollars, a mud-splotched gym bag, and the clothes on his forty-something-year-old back, Mike Davies steps off the bus in Texas City, a deepwater port on the Gulf Coast lined with smoke-spewing oil refineries. Mike has arrived from Los Angeles, where for the past several years he’s been working as a porn star and performed in around two thousand movies—he’s won six AVN awards, the Oscars of the industry—as Mikey Saber. He’s played in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket by Simon Rex, who dabbled in porn himself before becoming an MTV VJ, a rapper (you may know him as Dirt Nasty), and an actor who starred in the sitcom What I Like About You and in three Scary Movies.
Mikey makes his way to the front porch of the house that belongs to his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and her mother (Brenda Deiss)—they’re “like meth-head versions of the Edies in Grey Gardens,” notes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. He then talks the ladies into letting him shower and crash a few nights that turn into a few weeks. Rooney suggests that it’s “no accident that Baker and his regular co-writer Chris Bergoch have set Red Rocket against the casually observed backdrop of the 2016 presidential primaries. While Mikey is funny and even endearing for much of the movie with his shameless survival tactics and his compulsive lies, he’s also a wicked embodiment of the Trumpian ethos of conning people with big talk and empty promises, milking them for whatever he can get and then moving on with zero accountability. He’s part self-delusion and part calculated deceit.”
As the Telegraph’s Tim Robey puts it, “Mikey, repeatedly, is just the worst.” But for Manu Yáñez Murillo, dispatching to Film Comment from Cannes a couple of months ago, it’s “not difficult to find oneself championing the character, whose crafty charm and artful charisma—he would fit right into a Safdies’ joint—turn him into the polar star of an impoverished, neglected community of misfits.”
Mikey aims to get back to LA and back in porn. When he spots seventeen-year-old Raylee aka Strawberry (newcomer Suzanna Son, who has so far won over every single reviewer) behind the counter at the Donut Hole—the joint “suggests communion, but reflects isolation,” observes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook—Mikey decides she’s just the ticket. “As he bulldozes the fragile and imperfect small-town community of Red Rocket, his forceful, American-hustler charm increasingly grates on the people he won’t acknowledge he relies on,” writes Pat Brown at Slant.
In Red Rocket, Baker “frequently knots stomach-churning tragedy and farcical, high-pitched comedy into the same scene,” writes Guy Lodge at Film of the Week. Baker’s “vision of sidelined America is both desolately ugly and garishly beautiful, painting squat streetscapes in jubilant sherbet hues.” Baker famously shot Tangerine (2015) on three iPhones and then switched to 35 mm for The Florida Project (2017). Here, working with cinematographer Drew Daniels, he shoots on 16 mm, lending Red Rocket a texture that “combines the velvet touch of early Spielberg with the invasive eroticism of Italian exploitation,” as David Ehrlich writes at IndieWire. Ehrlich notes that Baker has cited Fernando Di Leo’s The Italian Connection (1972) and Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974) as “specific touchstones.”