It’s never a good sign when someone gets off a bus after two days without any bags. That’s how we meet Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) in “Red Rocket.” He’s back in his hometown, Texas City, on the Gulf Coast, after 15 years or so as a porn actor in LA. All those boogie nights are now a boogie morning after. Both comedy and tragedy await.
Mikey’s so down on his luck he has to turn to his seriously estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), to take him in. Almost as down on their luck as he is, they live in a shotgun shack hard by a petrochemical plant.
Sean Baker directed and wrote the script with his regular collaborator, Chris Bergoch. With “Tangerine” (2015) and “The Florida Project” (2017), Baker staked a very considerable claim to a raw-wound, up-against-it America rarely seen in the movies. “Red Rocket” solidifies that claim.
A compellingly feckless manipulator, Mikey is on the go. When he talks, he spiels. When he walks, he strides. He has the louche good looks of a debased Bradley Cooper, and movie-star vanity to match. He stops to fix his hair before making a cellphone call. “Nothing with you is unexpected,” a wary, weary Lexi says. It’s part statement of fact, part reproach. “I’ve still got that sass!” Mikey tells her. Yes, he does, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
A man has to earn a living, especially a man on the make. To get around Texas City, Mikey’s reduced to riding Lexi’s beat-up old bike. It’s far too small for him and doesn’t have a cross bar. It’s a girl’s bike. Mikey doesn’t care. Baker’s tracking shots of him riding around in this flat, flat, flat terrain make him seem a part of the landscape. It’s a sight at once comical and sad, bizarre and unsettling. That describes “Red Rocket” as a whole. “You’ve been drinkin’ all my Ensure,” Lil complains to Mikey. That’s a very funny line. It’s also a very depressing line. That duality makes it a very “Red Rocket” line.
An opportunity arises for Mikey to do something lucrative and illegal. More accurately, he helps it arise. As cash accumulates he starts thinking about Plan B. That plan acquires a face when he sees Rae Lee (Suzanna Son) behind the counter at a doughnut shop.
Mikey becomes a regular customer, and the pink sparkle doughnuts he orders aren’t the reason why. Although Rae Lee is her name, everyone calls her Strawberry, she has such a blooming, freckled complexion. One look at that innocent appearance and Mikey sees something else: his ticket back to LA. “You have that Hollywood vibe,” she says to him. She also points out, “You’re in Texas City, riding a bike, and hitting on high schoolers?” In Strawberry’s blend of guilelessness and calculation, Mikey may have met his match.
Mikey is a reckless and amazing role, and Rex is up to the challenge. His career includes stints as a male model, MTV veejay, rapper, acting in TV and a bunch of movies you’ve never heard of (and wouldn’t want to), and, yes, when he was just starting out, a little bit of porn. This is a man with a lot in his past and a shrinking leading-man future (Rex is 47). It’s no surprise that he gives Mikey everything he’s got. What is a surprise is how much he’s got to give. The performance is riveting until, like the movie, it just becomes too much.
For its first half, “Red Rocket” is a combination of character study and slice of life. The dubiousness of the character and dankness of that life — and the understated vividness of their presentation — make the movie memorable and distinctive. It doesn’t even matter much that Baker throws in the occasional shot of a Trump sign or glimpse of him on television (it’s 2016). Then “Red Rocket,” in its still-unusual way, becomes more like a standard movie, bringing together several strands of narrative. Baker does this quite skillfully, but serious overload has kicked in.
The important point is that it takes an awful lot of talent to produce such overload, and an awful lot of talent, and ambition, Baker has. He’s not like anyone else, and “Red Rocket” isn’t like any other movie you’ve seen this year. Expect the taste of pink sparkle doughnuts to linger.
Directed by Sean Baker. Written by Baker and Chris Bergoch. Starring Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community, suburbs. 128 minutes. R (nudity, strong sexual content, pervasive language, drug use).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.