Red Rocket

Red Rocket ★★★★½

Sleazy, rude Americana, the kind of grainy portraiture of an empire as seen from the bottom, previously illustrated amongst the onslaught of Tampa-core dark comedies like Janicza Bravo's Zola and Harmony Korine's godfathering Spring Breakers or Sean Baker's own work, like the L.A.-set Tangerine. While Baker's films aren't as kissed by surrealism as those of his indie peers, they still revel in the same low-life milieu, the kind of sweaty, sun-drenched contemporary Wild West where characters of grey morality navigate messy, complicated lives and regularly (and often foolishly) flirt with disaster.

Red Rocket's Texas isn't as gloriously loud and deranged as Spring Breaker's Florida or Tangerine's Hollywood are, with Baker opting for an approach grounded in a more low-key realism. But the subtly oneiric 70's haziness (the film is shot on 16mm and rife with dramatic zooms, reminiscent of the Hong Kong cinema of the era, not to mention its sexploitation films) is successful in recalling the vague, dreamy nostalgia present in the kind of bikini-clad Southern crime films periodically spat out by A24.

However, Red Rocket is very much Simon Rex's film. Rex's Mikey is a borderline amoral, skeezy and overall pretty reprehensible dude brought to life by an incredible, show-stopping performance that renders him more charming and likable than he has any right being. Watching him bullshit his way into and right back out of good fortune is a blast and Rex strikes a perfect balance for Mikey's brand of charismatic delusion and sociopathic narcissism. Watching a man in his 40's sling dope while grooming a 17-year-old girl for a career in porn (which he is mainly set to profit from, of course) really shouldn't be this much fun to watch.

With his third film, Baker has created a darkly hilarious dirtbag saga and likely my favorite film of 2021. Unpredictable, tragic and hilarious.


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