Friday 18 March 2022

Flirting with disaster: "Red Rocket"

After the grand success of 2017's
The Florida Project, Red Rocket finds writer-director Sean Baker returning to the business of people ducking and diving at the American margins. The new film centres on one Mikey Davis a.k.a. Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a sometime porn star who's just been forcibly ejected from the biz, judging by the bruises he sports in the opening scene; as we catch up with him, amid the run-up to the 2016 election, he's returning to his small Texan hometown for the first time since *NSYNC were in vogue, older but not notably wiser. The residents are slow to catch on to the fact there's a potential monster in their midst. While Baker busies himself sketching his dirt-poor and hitherto sorely overlooked location, a place where there's barely anything to do save watch TV all day, Mikey somehow worms his way back into the two-bedroom house his estranged wife shares with her aged mother, and attempts to rebuild himself from scratch. Unemployable due to gaps on his CV (and doubts over what's actually on there), ineligible for benefits, he resorts to weed-slinging to support himself and using his dubious charms to get whatever else he wants, but the film around him remains steadfastly unhurried. Baker takes a good 45 minutes to establish that this is a character who's turning circles and going nowhere fast, who develops merely in progressing from chasing tail to chasing his own tail. (There's a high proportion of dog in Mikey's DNA; he could strike you as puppyish, were you to encounter him on the right afternoon.) All credit to Baker, who's taken the goodwill afforded him following The Florida Project - a film genial enough to become a crossover hit, despite the hardships it observed at the fringes of American society - and invested it in something chancier and more challenging: an extended study of a character who is both the model of a good ol' boy and a useless sack of shit.

What Baker sensed is that Rex presents as an intriguing study: an actual porn star turned MTV VJ who briefly courted Paris Hilton before fading into the dim recesses of the collective pop-cultural memory. Rediscovered in his mid-forties, he rather resembles a Bradley Cooper descending into middle-aged seed; the character of Mikey - residually handsome and buff, prosthetically well-endowed - has taken care of himself, but to what end is open to question. Baker needs Rex to charm us, too - to turn it on as he once did for Paris. He does, because he knows where the laughs are in this script - principally, in Mikey's near-total absence of self-awareness. Clock his defensiveness around winning a Best Oral award for a scene in which he was more done to than doing; try not to chuckle when he declares "keeping it on the DL is the secret of my success", and then ask yourself what this dude's definition of success might be. He's this close to being a clueless, lovable dolt; you find yourself warming to him from time to time. Yet he's also fundamentally rootless, grasping, even predatory, and here's where Red Rocket starts to get trickier. Mikey's big score - the get-rich-quick scheme by which he expects to improve his prospects - is to seduce a 17-year-old donut shop waitress, Rayleigh a.k.a. Strawberry (Suzanna Son), and turn her out in L.A. as his new porn protégée. It's almost as if Baker were remaking The Florida Project from the perspective of the pederast Willem Dafoe chased away from the condo; anybody troubled by Licorice Pizza's central relationship risks having their head explode here. Baker has upended the American-dreamer subgenre, by centring it on a grafter/grifter whose own head has been screwed on funny, or at least filled with funny ideas, particularly with regard to women. Those TVs in the background most often alight upon the figure of Donald J. Trump; the implication seems to be that Mikey, with his Stars-and-Stripes spliffs, is more representative than first thought.

Despite that, what you take away from Red Rocket is light, space and fresh air. The widescreen Baker and cinematographer Drew Daniels shoot in not only allows a better feel for their sleepy locale, it never lets toxicity build up, and it affords us greater room to approach these characters on the level, without undue judgement. Baker can back away from Mikey whenever he gets too much; he's never entirely in our face. Though long for a film that's really about nothing more significant than a dipshit tripping over his own dick - 2hrs 10, the leeway you get when your last movie charmed the pants off everybody - Red Rocket is brisk when it needs to be; despite the darkness in the corner of its eye, it's an easy, largely enjoyable watch. For much of the duration, we're hanging out with these people; nothing is forced on us. In a more conventional film, the emergency warning system we hear being tested early on would foreshadow some last-reel crisis. Baker just absorbs it as part of everyday life, while being alert to its useful subtexts. (Mikey Saber is back in town; lock up your daughters.) In the moment of The Batman, such breeziness is a rare, precious and subversive commodity; as Licorice Pizza realised, it may be all we have left to connect today's American independents to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Yet it permits filmmakers time and space to reveal personality in a way the tangled narratives of the comic-book movie rarely do. The 26-year-old Son's performance has gone underacknowledged amid the acclaim for Rex, but it's essential to the film's blithe charm. We can relax to a degree once we sense this girl is in no immediate danger from either protagonist, filmmaker or film; that she has the quick wit and inner steel to survive whatever's thrown at her. (Son certainly doesn't play Strawberry as a victim in the conventional understanding of that term. A co-conspirator, maybe? But now we truly are getting into tricky territory.) And it is a terrific performance by Rex: no Oscar nod - too committed to its own skeeze for that - but bound for commemoration in future dictionaries as an unimprovable illustration of the epithet fuckboy. We should all hope to heaven that it is a performance.

Red Rocket is now showing in selected cinemas.

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