Red Rocket

Red Rocket ★★★½

The conversation surrounding unlikable protagonists is interesting because it's easy to lead with the simple argument that protagonists can be unlikable - which is patently obvious - and then end the conversation there without actually engaging with the character's arc in the film. And arc is the important word here. There are few things more foundational to any film or character than the existence of an arc. Regardless of if it's "real life" or "a hangout film" - your unlikable, unsympathetic, piece of shit protagonists need to go through some sort of change, whether it be positive or negative, because that is what a film is. They should learn something new, or we should learn something new about them, or both.

I think that very issue is at the heart of an otherwise beautifully made product with a fantastic performance from Simon Rex. By the end of it, our main character, and importantly most of what we know about him and his past, is the exact same. His "comeuppance" sequence is less about character and more about fodder for the visceral freneticism that Baker loves. And the problem is not that his fundamental shitty, predatory nature stays unchanged - that makes total sense. The bigger problem is that his ostensible outlet for narrative change is a relationship with a 17 year old girl where very little effort is put into 1) Developing that 17 year old girl as a character, and 2) Illustrating the consequences of his grooming. In essence, he tries to manipulate and groom her into doing porn, and then what? The climax of the film isn't even about her - it does more to develop the surrounding community if anything. It's unclear what we're supposed to take away about her. If you think about it, the admittedly stylistically brilliant ending is actually not too far off from what Baker aimed for at the end of The Florida Project, with the main difference being that ending was about its fully realized characters moving through a particular place and what it represented and this one tries to do the same with a particular person it desperately needed to develop. Just doesn't hit quite as effectively.

Anyway. I liked it, for all the reasons I normally like Sean Baker films. There's an energy and humanity to his work that is always undeniably his. But it is missing a certain depth of character that would elevate it.


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