Near the beginning of "Red Rocket," we see a man, handsome but skittish, walking up to a once-pastel clapboard house. In the background, oil refineries spout flames, turning the leaves of all the surrounding palm trees a sickly yellow. What could possibly possess a man to seek this place out?
Turns out the man, Mikey Davies, is trying to patch things up with his ex-girlfriend, Lexi, who also just happens to be his wife. The relationship status of “It’s complicated” on social media sites doesn’t quite cover what’s going on here.
But Mikey doesn’t have a choice except to give it another go with his girl. Not that he’s missed her. He just needs a place to crash after striking out in L.A., where he rose to fame as a porn star. Lexi and her mother, a tough but not entirely heartless woman with sandpapery skin and a heroin habit, agree to take Mikey in if he agrees to pay rent.
Mikey wastes no time in beating his feet, filling out applications wherever he can, at restaurants, shoddy little convenience stores, and so on. But he has massive gaps in his employment record that can’t be explained without him revealing his former identity.
Things look bleak for Mikey, until he runs into an old acquaintance who’s a weed dealer and agrees to put him on. His start is inauspicious, peddling an ounce of dirt weed to kids at a park skateboarding on a halfpipe. But it’s something, and Mikey and Lexi are starting to reconcile (or at least have sex again).
We’re pulling for Mikey, who, despite being a bs artist prone to embellishing the truth, seems to be good at heart. And he has a couple other things going for him, like his rugged good looks, the gift of gab, and a stunning set of glassy grey-green eyes. He also has an endowment that’s a bit of a gift-curse. He drives women crazy sexually, but doesn’t always drive them crazy in a good way. And we get the sense that his placing such emphasis on his sexual prowess is keeping him from ever growing up or being a real man.
Like real-life porn star Ron Jeremy, Mikey wants the world to think his having sex onscreen makes him a free spirit, and an artist. But when he brags to people it seems like he’s trying to convince himself more than them. He’s aware that his gift is God-given, rather than a talent of which he should be proud (no matter how many AVN awards he racks up).
One day, after offloading his herb, Mikey rides his bike to the donut store. He’s not looking for trouble but he finds it. There he meets a freckle-faced girl named Strawberry with doe eyes and a seeming innocence that might be masking something else. Things take a turn toward the Lolita-esque (though it’s technically not statutory rape, according to Texas law), and Mikey finds that the tables have finally turned. Rather than him just driving the girls crazy, he and Strawberry are bringing each other to a place of dangerous sexual intensity. It’s that mad love that can get people hurt, both figuratively and literally.
“Red Rocket,” is a well-directed, skillfully written movie that takes a meandering path to get where it’s going. The actors (both professional and nonprofessional) are encouraged to breathe and explore their characters. Sense of place is as important as plot. The already-mentioned Texas oilfields are a character in their own right. The smoldering industrial backdrop is shown as a kind of flaming hellscape that, like the relationship between Mikey and Strawberry, rages with an all-consuming, poisonous fire.
Everything in the small Texas town that isn’t part of the oil industry is decrepit, crumbling, and neglected, including (sadly) the people. Like Killing Them Softly, the movie interleaves a lot of diegetic background noise of politicians blathering on TV. Only this time it’s Hillary “Hilligula” Clinton, and Donald “the Golden Golem of Greatness” (hat-tip James Kunstler) making all the sound and fury and signifying nothing.
We don’t get the sense that the movie has a political message, or intends to cudgel us over the head with another allegory. It’s hard to say exactly why Trump and Hillary appear, except, that like everything else in the movie, it feels both real and necessary.
When people talk about “Red Rocket,” whether they like it or not, the first thing they’re likely to mention is Simon Rex’s performance. Rex, who has worked both in the adult film industry and in Hollywood, understands the entertainment world inside-out. He understands that the people seeking validation are both narcissistic and insecure, hungry for love and attention and asking for it in the only way they know how: by pretending. It helps him bring nuance to his depiction of a man who is not quite just the sum of his appetites—a man who is, at times, genuinely trying—but simply cannot grow up.
That said, I don’t want to make the same mistake everyone makes with Raging Bull, and mention the male lead and leave out Suzanna Son as Strawberry. She brings quite a bit to the table, showing how hard, perhaps impossible, it is for a young woman to hold on to her girlhood in such a hypersexualized world. Like most young girls, she’s already fascinated by men and somewhat bored with boys. And Mikey (like far too many men) is only too willing to use a very unequal playing field to his advantage.
It would be very easy to condemn him, to write him off at times as a fool, at others as a soulless sociopath; that sounds harsh, but when it becomes clear he might be grooming Strawberry, the impulse to hate him is hard to deny. But the movie does a good job of not judging him, instead giving Mikey the chance to damn or save himself with every scene. That I found myself unable to judge what he does (even when it’s objectively wrong or morally sleazy) is a testament to the work everyone put into this film.
“Red Rocket,” shows genuine human behavior in an honest way, and it also makes you laugh at the funny moments and flinch when things get dicey. Like everything else I’ve seen from A24 (Uncut Gems, Hereditary), it was great. Highest recommendation.