I don’t know if there’s a more interesting filmmaker who depicts middle/lower-class American life than Sean Baker, who made one of the absolute best films of the 21st century in The Florida Project. With Red Rocket, he tackles the underbelly of Texas which finds Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) thrown back into his hometown. Two things are made clear right off the bat – the first of which is that Mikey is not only an adult-film actor, but he was very talented at his craft before he had to leave Los Angeles. The second of which is that he didn’t leave his hometown on the best of terms the last time he was here. Every single scene where Mikey interacts with someone from his past is met with anxiety-inducing discomfort. It’s clear that whatever it was he did in the past, he did for his own personal gain despite how much it affected the people around him – and this makes his meeting with 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son) all the more hard to watch.
Before you even find out any facts about Mikey’s past, Simon Rex’s performance makes you somehow both absolutely loathe the guy but insanely interested in following him on this downwards spiral of conning and personal gain. It’s the kind of performance, from a guy who isn’t really known for his dramatic work, that makes you want to see him appear in every possible film from this point forward. He is so astoundingly good here, and the films’ tricky subject matter is only this digestible because he is such an absolutely fantastic performer that you don’t mind going down this very dark rabbit hole with him.
In terms of direction, this might be Sean Baker’s best outing yet. While I still prefer The Florida Project over this, I found that the direction was even smoother and more confident with an absolutely gorgeous visual style. His films are both somehow deeply political but not at all down your throat about what they’re trying to say. Since the film takes place in 2016, there’s a very clear message here about Trump’s hold on small communities and how we treat politics and real-life as if it’s reality TV. But it’s all really a backdrop to Mikey’s story – it just adds depth to the world and political climate that bred Mikey Saber to be who he is in the first place.
This is also easily Sean Baker’s funniest film to date, with an insane amount of dark humor that is perfectly laced throughout the entire picture. It’s insanely hard to make people laugh at tricky subject matter, so I have all the respect in the world for Baker who pulls it off really well here. And yet, the laughs don’t overshadow how deeply uncomfortable everything else going on is. The film does a tremendous job at balancing the laughs and entertainment value with being a rich, dark, and extremely nuanced character study. It’s one of the absolute best films of the year.