At the end of Red Rocket, the new film by Sean Baker, our entire understanding of the film’s framing is upended. What seemed to be an objective lens — and smartly, it is initially shot with knowing objectivity that holds naturalistic weight — is abruptly inverted and shows us that everything that came before this final moment was perhaps unreliable narration. Everything we thought we knew about the story is shattered through this careful shift of perception. This shift exhibits exactly the radical format shift we felt in Baker’s previous work, reminiscent of the personalizing move to guerrilla iPhone footage at the end of 2017’s The Florida Project, which goes from the warming nostalgic frame of 35mm to the hyperactivity of iPhone 6 cameras. In Red Rocket, shot on 16mm, Baker employs the Male Gaze meticulously so that he can then deconstruct it. It’s another simple trick that is only possible in film and uses our understanding of the medium to elevate the work.
It’s that very vitality of cinema that makes Red Rocket another exemplary work. It is important for some films to make us uncomfortable. For some films to be the kind of art that asks us pertinent questions about the world, and that shows us a side of life that rarely gets framed. Red Rocket is a practice in discomfort. It is trailer park Uncut Gems (2019). Like the Safdie Brothers’ recent film, it lives in the pocket of American distress, that is where its heart is, and where all of its ideas are born. It is the product of a suffering and self harming country festering from the inside.
Mikey (Simon Rex) has been gone for a while. Ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) stayed behind. He left the industrial suburbs of Texas to become a somebody in the adult film industry in California and returned a down and out nobody, needing room and board, and with little to offer in return. Mikey is a loathsome sort of ne’er-do-well and is unfathomably hard to root for. The greatest victory of Red Rocket, perhaps, is still getting us to care. Getting us to think it’s worthwhile that he might improve the lives of those around him, if not wishing for his own success. But he’s a badly broken soul, trying to make ends meet selling pot around the neighborhood. His best intentions of helping out and paying rent are summarily derailed when he meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old working at a donut shop, who already has a name fit for porn and an inexperienced High School boy friend who looks easy to sideline. We follow Mikey as he grooms the young child and it’s all repugnant and hard to watch, only saved by the good actors installed in each role. And they are exemplary.
Sean Baker knows exactly how to direct people. He finds the core of humanity in a person and just explores some fundamental truth about their character. Sure, it’s tiresome work, digging through the trenches of this Modern America — the film taking place around the Trump election cycle, it exists in the detritus of our lowest national culture. It reminds us too often of what we see already on the news. It cuts to the bone. Red Rocket thrives on our pure discomfort, the story of a child predator who once saw a way out and is now buried so deeply in his own bullshit that it suffocates the viewer. It’s a gutsy portrayal of a certain way of living, built earnestly through dense characterization. Baker does not shy away from a difficult character. He gives them the entire screen and lets them cook.
In Sean Baker we have one of our most curious directors. He is unafraid to colorfully explore the seedy underbelly of an America that has failed its people. Red Rocket is a firmly realized work of great aesthetic value, expanding upon the foundational works of Tangerine (2015) and the aforementioned The Florida Project. Given the last minute revelation of the film, perhaps further viewings will cement this new work as being in league with Baker’s pre-established classics. This one demands a little more from the viewer, forcing them into conversation about the most uncomfortable subject imaginable. As exhilarating and unhinged as it is morally exhausting, Red Rocket demands a lot, but offers so much in return.