The “con” in “con artist” is a shorthand for “confidence,” and it’s fitting. You have to really believe in yourself and your abilities in order to take advantage of every person you come into contact with. Whenever we talk about evil people doing terrible things, we often wonder what compels those people to lie, cheat, steal, and abuse others. So calling someone a con artist is both an insult and a compliment, being impressed with that person’s commitment to being truly awful. The most fascinating villains in movie history are ones where the audience can find traces of human decency in them and weigh their choice to either accept or reject them. Then again, it can be all the more interesting to see a horrible person stay unphased in their rancid behavior.
The latest of these case subjects can be found in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, through its protagonist, Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a small-town Texan who escaped his rundown home in 1999 for a chance to make it big in Los Angeles as a porn star. Now it’s 2016 and Mikey is broke, bruised, and desperate for a place to crash, so he goes home to his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mom (Brenda Deiss), as he tries to get back on his feet.
Not even the most basic place of business will hire Mikey (especially when he tells them his lewd claim to fame), so he starts dealing weed on the streets and bumming rides off a scuzzy neighbor (Ethan Darbone) in exchange for his wild stories about life as a porn star. But he eventually meets Raylee (Suzanna Son), a 17-year-old donut store employee whose naivety and promiscuity hook him well before she tells him to call her “Strawberry.” Mikey sees potential in Strawberry, in that he thinks her looks can get him back into the LA porn industry, so he amps up the charm and plans another escape from the mundanity he rejected years ago.
There’s a looming sense of dread and sleaze hanging over Red Rocket, both caused by its main story and the atmosphere around it. Not only are Mikey’s grimy actions slowly snowballing into a boulder that’s bound to flatten him by the movie’s end, but a porn star hustling an underage girl looks par for the course in the rundown settings of Texas City and Galveston. From the car seats serving as lawn furniture for dilapidated households to the towering smokestacks surrounding the cities like an economic wall, Red Rocket has settings and subject matter so believable, it might as well be a documentary.
Writer/director Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project) is no stranger to finding compelling drama in the skeeviest parts of America, and with the help of cinematographer Drew Daniels (It Comes at Night, Waves), he once again captures a slice of life that’s fascinating, hard to look at, and believable all at once. The story and dialogue don’t pull punches either, as Baker and returning co-writer Chris Bergoch write as vulgar a story like this would suggest.
All the main characters cuss in celebration, scorn, and in mere observation, as if it’s the only way to drive a point home. There isn’t really a hero or other traditional protagonists in Red Rocket, instead just down-trodden people who’ve accepted the deteriorating misery of their lives that even an acknowledgement from a motor-mouthed porn star is a sense of occasion. Baker and Bergoch also give Mikey plenty of moments to redeem himself in some way and know the right time to let its star rip growth away from himself. His words and actions are so pitiful and creepy that you go from rooting for him to being disgusted by him in new ways every 20 minutes or so.
It would be almost be rude to say that Simon Rex was born to play this part. With his faded supermodel face, basic California tan, and ex-varsity football physique, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume he may have earned a punch in the face or two in his lifetime. Hell, Simon Rex and Mikey Saber are interchangeable porn star names. What Rex does to sell Mikey’s on-screen action is radiate unflappable energy. Part douchebag boyfriend and part Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, Rex has a persistence only matched by the dickishness written for him. His body movements are exaggerated just enough to the point where he’s not doing a parody of a jerk, he just thinks he’s that important and deserving of everyone’s attention.
There’s also the quiet moments where Mikey takes in certain moments of the world around him and Rex has a stare that makes you unsure if he’s contemplating his life choices or planning his next scheme. Rex may never get work this good again (unless they really reboot Scary Movie, God forbid), but he burns through this performance effortlessly. He’s got solid help in the supporting cast, with Suzanna Son matching Rex’s charisma in nearly every scene and Bree Elrod reminding the audience there are consequences in this movie’s universe. Still, this is a one-man show that Rex walks away with.
Is there a winner in Red Rocket? Maybe not, but it’s riveting to see someone so corrupt think the universe is on his side. If Baker’s last feature, The Florida Project, proved there’s always wonder to be had in even the worst of times, his newest proves there’s always a level lower for a man to stoop himself. Baker continues to find fascinating new shades of American life to paint stories onto without robbing them of their authenticity. It’s also a frightening period piece that shows the power that unbelievable scumbags have. Mikey’s despicable antics that hustled this slice of blue-collar America in 2016 could be seen as a microscopic omen of a more famous, similarly greasy con artist that was also about to hustle blue-collar America that same year.
Red Rocket is now playing in select theaters. You can watch the trailer here.