After buying the bus ticket from California to the place he swore he’d never return (his hometown of Texas City, TX), Mikey (Simon Rex) has twenty dollars left in his pocket to passive-aggressively offer his estranged wife (Bree Elrod‘s Lexi) when begging to stay at her mother’s (Brenda Deiss‘ Lil) house for a few days. He does what he does best by leveraging his ego and smarmy charm to fast-talk his way back from the property line to the porch to the shower to the kitchen. Mikey says he’ll pay rent. Then he walks it back to “helping with chores” before ultimately settling on “protection” as a “man in the house.” They’d rather have never seen him again, but the prospect of cash is tough to pass up.
Why is he here? Because he literally has nowhere to go. Ask him why and he’ll talk more about the expensive things he was apparently screwed out of in California than the reasons he got screwed. Then he’ll remind them about how many awards he’s won as a porn star during the fifteen years he’s been gone, a third of them spent with Lexi while she pursued the same career. Did he therefore get too old for the industry? Did he “lose a step” as the little blue pills he pops before propositioning Lexi for a booty call while Lil sleeps in the next room assumes? Maybe. Or maybe he’s just an asshole no one likes enough to go out on a limb for. Maybe he deserves nothing.
What then does director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch do during their latest collaboration Red Rocket? They give him a second chance. Doing so isn’t necessarily altruistic of them, though. It might be the exact opposite. Because anytime a narcissist believes he/she is winning usually means someone else is getting hurt. What they’re doing then is providing Mikey with ample opportunities to do the right thing, show contrition, and try to turn his life around. They’re begging him to turn over a new leaf and reveling in the fact that it’s simply not in his DNA. This is a guy who brags about winning “best oral” multiple times while refusing to acknowledge how messed up it is that he won for receiving rather than giving.
That’s who Mikey is. He’s a user. An opportunist. A—in supposed industry terms—”suitcase pimp.” Baker says he learned the phrase while researching for his film Starlet. It signifies a male star who lives off the success of a female star. Mikey takes credit for their work on-screen. He fancies himself a “manager” who had Lexi “stolen” out from under him. And he can’t help himself from fantasizing about his way back to the top upon seeing soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) working behind the local donut shop counter. She can be his new muse. She can be his latest cash cow. But only if he plays it right. Talking a small-town country conservative teen into being a porn star takes a light touch after all.
If that sounds like Baker has made a film about a forty-something has-been grooming an impressionable ingenue so he can prostitute her to an industry that will ultimately reward him for the trouble … you’re right. That’s the exact main plot. Does it mean the film itself is bad in the process? People may think so considering Mikey is good at being a sleazebag, but Red Rocket is not condoning his sleazebag antics. On the contrary, it’s exposing just how messed up America is as a nation of get-rich-quick-schemes by any means necessary. Mikey and Lexi saw their chance to make money from sex and they took it. In the end, however, it’s not the talent that gets rich. It’s the handlers, the “protection,” the pimps.
Mikey not only knows this now, but he knows the best way to be that person is leaving the wolf’s den to find more sheep in the prairie. That means subtly playing his old boss Leondria (Judy Hill) to sling pot in ways she doesn’t approve for the start-up money. It means letting Lexi pretend he wants to get their marriage back on track so that he has a base of operations. There’s befriending the next-door neighbor who’s idolized him since youth (Ethan Darbone‘s Lonnie) into becoming his chauffeur and, finally, preying upon Strawberry’s hopeful innocence by tapping into her “daddy issues” in a way that turns her into putty in his hands after just three weeks. He may just be as untouchable as he thinks.
Except there’s no movie without some conflict. Baker and Bergoch might wait until the last minute to expose the tricks they had up their sleeves the whole time, but it still works both to assure us they aren’t championing Mikey and to allow themselves the room to circle back and show how justice is very rarely served to those privileged few able to accrue fortunes off the backs of unsuspecting and willing victims. You’re not supposed to like Mikey and yet you do want him to succeed because it means being able to listen to him sell a worthless bill of goods to a mark. He’s got the essence of a used car salesman and the genetics to wield it within a much more lucrative industry.
So, don’t be like much of the cast. Prepare yourself for a good amount of male-frontal nudity. Rex did get his start masturbating in gay porn, so he’s not averse to baring all. What the MTV VJ, model, rapper, etc. has not done up until this point, however, is show that he has what it takes to lead a feature length film with a performance that doesn’t entail him being the butt of the joke. I mean, he still is. Sort of. Mikey is an atrocious human being who gets a bit of what he deserves before the end, but he’s also a three-dimensional character that must stay true to his warped psychology to prevent himself from becoming a caricature. There’s no guide better than Baker.
He has made a career of highlighting marginalized groups of people in ways that remind society that we’re all people who deserve dignity. That doesn’t mean he won’t draw villains in those worlds too, though. Just that he’ll paint the setting with a brush that allows the complexity and originality of who they are to shine through the hateful stereotypes and bigotry usually thrown their way. Mikey is a catalyst. He’s the antihero who’s so busy setting everyone up for a fall that he refuses to even fathom he’s heading towards one himself. Do I wish Baker spent more time on the latter than he does the former? Sure. But the result wouldn’t be as entertaining. Red Rocket excels in that gray area because American loves a dirtbag.
 Simon Rex Courtesy of A24
 Simon Rex, Suzanna Son (L-R) Courtesy of A24
 Simon Rex, Ethan Darbone (L-R) Courtesy of A24