RED ROCKET is directed by Sean Baker. The film stars Simon Rex.
Mikey Saber is a former porn star who's past his prime, reluctantly returning to his hometown in Texas, where he has trouble adjusting to life around people who weren't exactly sad to see him leave the community in the first place. He settles in with his estranged wife and her mother, taking jobs dealing drugs to help pay the rent when no one's interested in him for more conventional employment, as he tries to rekindle his former relationship. But things take an unexpected turn when he meets a beautiful young donut shop employee who could be the relationship of his dreams, giving him a possible way back to the adult film industry and a revived lust for life and love of sex. Will he be able to revive his dreams and his career, or will the people he left so long ago still have it out for him?
Until a few years ago I was unfamiliar with filmmaker Sean Baker, but during the days of the Moviepass card, one film I took a chance on was THE FLORIDA PROJECT, also directed by Baker. That movie hit me hard with its realistic depictions of lower-class life and people struggling to get by and simply make ends meet, often resorting to immoral means out of desperation just to survive. I'd always wondered if we'd get another film from the man who gave us that movie, and a few years later, we have RED ROCKET, which is similarly hard-hitting in its portrait of everyday life. While the film is a bit too long, it earns major points for its star Simon Rex, gorgeous cinematography, and slice-of-life filmmaking, not to mention a fine supporting cast.
One minor complaint I want to address which isn't directly related to the film itself is the marketing/poster art. The art depicts Rex naked, covered by nothing but a giant donut. The artwork implies that this would be a raunchy R-rated comedy. While there are certainly some funny moments in RED ROCKET and it does earn an R rating in other ways, the movie is absolutely not a comedy and should not be marketed as such. While the film itself is fantastic, this art is certainly misleading.
Sean Baker succeeds as a filmmaker for the hard-hitting realism his movies present. His movies aren't about superheroes, secret agents, or creatures of the night. Rather, he depicts "everyman" living conditions in less-than-favorable areas, showing the plight of modern America perhaps better than any other director working today. Taking unfavorable living conditions and turning the visuals into cinematic art is no easy task, but somehow, he pulls it off. Largely episodic and more slice-of-life in its approach than the movies of other filmmakers and directors, RED ROCKET is a fantastic film because of its all-too-familiar reality. You never know what might be around the corner for any of these characters at a given moment.
The performance from Simon Rex is arguably the greatest asset of RED ROCKET. Porn stars have long been the subject of movies, but have there been films that show what happens when one is washed up and struggling to make ends meet, reconnecting with their past? I'm not saying RED ROCKET is the first movie to cover this subject matter, but it does it in the form of a relatable individual who covers the role and the perspective from many different facets. We see him reminiscing about his accomplishments on screen and awards he's received, only to find himself turned down from more "traditional" employment due to his past and a lack of conventional work experience. Seeing him torn between wanting to rekindle with his wife and pursuing a relationship with a much younger girl who could be his ticket back into the porno industry makes for some fantastic drama, and moments that range from the hard-hitting to the hilarious. This is a man who must learn to accept responsibility for his actions and live in the now, no matter what it takes. It would be criminal if Rex didn't get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role here.
The movie also succeeds thanks to a fantastic supporting cast, with roles including Mikey's estranged wife, mother-in-law, a younger man he once knew, drug dealers and their associates, and of course, a beautiful young donut store employee played by Suzanna Son. Baker's films are always great because everyone looks and acts like a real person. There's no Hollywood glitz and glamour in his tales of lower-class life, and every performance in the movie is completely believable.
If there's one weakness to the otherwise stellar film, it's the pacing. The film clocks in at roughly 130 minutes, and one can't help put wonder if 20 minutes or so might have been better left on the editing room floor. We do end up with a few too many characters/scenes/situations/etc., and not all of them can get the fleshing out that they need. Some subplots don't quite get the wrap-up they deserve. The film's heavy-handed ending is also ambiguous, though this film lover would argue that Baker probably ended the movie in just the right spot.
Sean Baker strikes cinematic gold once again with RED ROCKET, another gritty picture of lower-class American life and settings, featuring an unlikely but interesting hero fantastically portrayed by Simon Rex. It's not the comedy the poster would lead you to believe, but its gorgeous filming, relatable situations, and cast make this a surprisingly strong film that's certainly worthy of more than a few Oscar nominations.