Red Rocket (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A porn actor returns to his hometown

Sean Baker’s new film “Red Rocket” is alternatively amusing and cringe-inducing for good reasons. Here is an incorrigibly sleazy and pathetic dude who is still driven by his hubris and selfishness even while his life is hitting another bottom, and the movie surely delivers a series of moments of uncomfortable laughs as phlegmatically observing how he reaches for another possible opportunity to benefit himself without thinking twice at all.

The movie, which is incidentally set in late 2016 when a certain orange-faced prick was rising to the top of the American political world to our shock and disbelief, is mainly about Mikey Davies (Simon Rex), an ex-pornography actor who has just returned to his hometown city in Texas. 17 years ago, he proudly left the city for a much bigger career success in California, but it is quite apparent that his good old time is gone now as the camera briefly looks at his bruised face and shabby appearance.

Due to his nearly penniless status, Mikey attempts to get some help from his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who was also a pornography performer before coming back to the city earlier than him. For whatever happened between them before their separation, Lexi does not welcome Mikey much, but she ends up allowing him into her small residence due to Mikey’s persistence coupled with some charm and fast-talk, and, what do you know, he comes to stay in her residence much longer than expected as promising to pay his rent to her and her aging mother, who have also really been in the need of some extra money.

For paying the rent, Mikey must find a job as soon as possible, but, of course, that turns out to be not so easy as he has to explain to his potential employers about his last 17 years in pornography industry. Understandably, everyone is not particularly willing to hire him due to his former occupation, and he has no choice but to go to a local marijuana dealer, who certainly does not have any problem with his past. Although he is not trusted that much at first, Mikey sells his portion of marijuana faster than expected, and it looks like he may depend on this illegal business for a while before moving onto whatever will come next for him.

And that comes to him sooner than expected when he goes to local donut shop on one day along with Lexi and her mother. There is a pretty young girl working there, and her lively beauty instantly captures Mikey’s attention. In his unwholesome mind, he discerns some certain potential from this girl, and he subsequently approaches to her while often selling marijuana in and around the donut shop.

Considering that Raylee (Suzanna Son) is about to have her 18th birthday and Mikey is probably more than 40, his gradual approach to her is surely creepy to say the least, but it soon turns out that she is not born yesterday at all. While quite charmed by his ingratiating fast talk, she is also very willing to go further with him, and there is a little funny dramatic moment when she casually reveals that she has no problem at all with his past.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Mikey eventually moves onto the next step of his unwholesome relationship with Ralyee, but the movie wisely avoids being too sensational or gratuitous in the depiction of their carnal moments, and we come to focus more on the absurd aspects of how Mikey willingly exploits not only Ralyee but also Lexi, who does not say no at all despite her remaining bitter feelings toward her husband. In addition, the movie also often makes a fun of how Mikey tries to remain, uh, virile as before via a certain pill, and that accentuates more how silly and superficial he really is.

As the screenplay by Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch, who previously collaborated with Baker in “Tangerine” (2015) “The Florida Project” (2017), leisurely moves from one episodic moment to another, the movie slowly immerses us in its plain but palpable local atmosphere, which is wonderfully captured on the grainy 16mm film by cinematographer Drew Daniels. The characters surrounding Mikey really look and feel like they have been inhabiting in their world for a long time, and Baker shows again how skillfully and effortlessly he can present a little but vivid and unadorned slice of life on the screen.

Simon Rex, who incidentally had some experience in pornography industry during his early career period, boldly hurls himself into his character’s sheer indecency and opportunism without any excuse at all, and his excellent performance makes the movie work as an uncomfortably fascinating character study of arrested development like Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” (2011). While deftly handling her several tricky scenes with Rex, newcomer Suzanna Son holds her own place well besides Rex, and Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, and Brittney Rodriguez are also solid as several other crucial female characters in the story.

In conclusion, “Red Rocket” is another interesting work from Baker, and its enjoyable elements including the game efforts from his cast members make it worthwhile to watch despite its inherent uncomfortable aspects. It is a bit too long in my inconsequential opinion, but it is mostly engaging on the whole, and I particularly appreciate the ironic aspect of its last scene, which may catch you off guard as much as the last scene of “The Florida Project” but works in a very different way. Now I am reminded of that famous quote from Orson Welles’ immortal masterpiece “Citizen Kane” (1941): “If it was anybody else, I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

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