Nude Illusion: Baker Returns to Sex Work in Bristling Character Study
You can’t go home again, especially when no one missed you in the first place. Sean Baker returns to the world of the down and out sex worker with his latest, Red Rocket, taking place in Texas City, TX at the onset of the 2016 presidential campaign. Baker has built a formidable indie filmography (mostly) through the use of first time actors, often bringing them to the precipice of considerable renown (Dree Hemingway, Mya Taylor, Brooklyn Prince).
In essence, this time around Baker recuperates Simon Rex as a weathered porn star similar to what Paul Thomas Anderson did for Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights (1997), whose Dirk Diggler is a point of comparison. But Baker has always been interested in social pariahs and the cultural peripheries, where well-established, clandestine hierarchies abound.
Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) is a well-established porn star who broke into the scene two decades ago after fleeing Gulf Coast Texas for the porn capital of Los Angeles. He’s got a large following on PornHub and has been nominated for several AVNs (the equivalent of the Oscars for his industry). And yet, he’s driven back to his hometown to beg his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss) for a place to stay until he can find a job. It’s clear there’s significant baggage between the alienated couple, but Mikey’s lost none of his charm and soon he’s back in their good graces, at least somewhat. It’s unclear what his angle is until he’s introduced to donut shop girl Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who he immediately determines is his ticket back to the stardom he’s desperate to reclaim.
Rex is a showstopper as the infectious, increasingly desperate has been who, for ambitious reasons, has decided to impinge himself on his estranged wife and mother-in-law. Neither seem too terribly enthusiastic to receive him, but the promise of assistance with the rent is lucrative. In stops and starts we glean information about their past, where twenty years ago both Lexi and Mikey both fled to Hollywood to pursue careers as porn stars, with Lexi burning out and returning home within a year. No one questions Mikey about his return, assuming destitution has blown him back to the Gulf Coast. His chance meeting of the transfixing Strawberry presumably inspires what he was at least subconsciously searching for – a nubile, malleable beauty he can groom for chapter two in the porn world. As the planets realign for Mikey, unexpected pratfalls compromise his grand scheme.
As Mikey, Rex is reminiscent of the love/hate inspired by Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (2019), a user and a loser whose narcissism dictates his every move. Those who remember Rex’s own sashay into the porn world before he became an MTV VJ (and Scary Movie alum) carries a certain delegitimizing stigma, yet was part of the parcel which won him entry into a zeitgeist moment. His performance in Red Rocket is novel on several levels, but perhaps most surprisingly is the considerable character work of Rex, who seems constantly on the verge of stepping onto a metaphorical landmine. It’s an interesting comparison to the female perspective of Starlet, where the narrative blossoms into togetherness. Although Red Rocket is underlined by the onset of Trump’s cultural hemorrhaging of the US, this masculine perspective is about dominion and destruction. Baker includes two notable sequences about an AVN award for Best Oral, wherein Mikey absorbs the credit while the female sex partner, doing all the ‘heavy lifting,’ is treated as an invisible participant.
Co-written by Baker and his usual scribe Chris Bergoch, there remains an element of the mythological in their latest gritty confection. In Tangerine, Orpheus & Eurydice flowed in the subtexts. This time around, the predatory Mikey plays like the devil’s emissary, sent by Hades back to his origins to prey on a vulnerable beauty and sacrifice her in the inferno (like Persephone).
A winning supporting ensemble evens out this landscape. Judy Hill (from What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, 2018) as local dealer Leondria and Ethan Darbone as Lonnie, the unfortunate neighbor of Lexi, are definite bright spots. Bree Elrod and Brenda Deiss may be downtrodden but are a loving mother and daughter who also provide low key comedic energy (same for Shih-Ching Tsou, long-time producer of Baker’s work, again playing a donut store owner as in Tangerine).
Suzanna Son is lovely as the sweetly naive Strawberry, reminiscent of young beauties like Jodie Foster, Sissy Spacek or Diane Lane in their breakthrough roles. Baker nabs Trey Edward Shults’ usual DP Drew Daniels for this grainy 35mm odyssey, which resists reveling in degradation and miserabilism for an acutely human portrait of hustler resisting the reality of his sell-by date.
Reviewed on July 14th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 105 Mins