Red Rocket

Red Rocket ★★★★

Well, the lead performance of 2021 is on screen. No, not Mr. Cumberbatch or Mr. Smith. It's actually Simon Rex, 'Dirt Nasty' himself, occupying the skin of a positively scummy, magnetic ex porn star who finds himself stranded back in his hometown of Texas City, Texas, wringing cash and favors out of old acquaintances, sleazing around the neighborhood with stories of false bravado and a pitiable lack of shame. For all intents and purposes he's an overgrown adolescent, scheming his way to hang on to teenagerdome, where he can fuck, make money, and coast on everyone else's bankable goodwill.

Seriously, Rex's portrayal is electrifying. He's simultaneously exploitative and pitiful, the type of grifter who can charm his way into and out of any scenario. You can see why he's such a gifted con artist that feeds his addiction of leeching off the environment around him, and you understand the type of narcissistic predator he is. We've all met one of him before, a skeevy specimen of barely human makeup that tools people around like the shopkeeper from 'Needful Things'. The longer you spend inside the man's head, the more appallingly fascinating he becomes. It goes with the territory of what director Sean Baker is after. 'Red Rocket' is not so subtly drawing parallels between Rex's Mikey Blake, and the former president. Trump's 2016 election is ever present in the background, reminding us of America's fascination with charismatic vipers who worm their way into our good graces, but we forgive their striking character flaws because their personality is so magnetic. My own personal politics aside, this is a pretty squishy target that feels like the most forced aspect of this film.

Being a Sean Baker film, the edges of the frames are deliberately rough hewn and visually intoxicating; with worn, non professional actors woven into the southwest fabric, as well as a thick summer heat hanging over the exteriors of this small industrial town in the Midwest. He's a born filmmaker, and his deliberately unnatural rhythm gives 'Red Rocket' an intriguing cinematic momentum. Mikey gets around the neighborhood on a hilarious little children's bicycle, one of the visual analogies for his perpetual arrested development. Baker's dialogue scenes feel so loose and casual that you might believe he simply found these people, and wandered around behind them with a camera documenting a day in their lives.

People can balk at the more problematic aspects of this character, but I don't think 'Red Rocket' ever comes remotely close to condoning his behavior. It's keen to simply observe him, and writhe around in the gutter of his headspace without reveling in his antics. He might've been born just plain white trash, but 'Mikey' was his name.

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