Texas City, 2016. Huge Trump billboards are visible on the side of the road, and the election campaign can be heard on the tv shows which provide a constant aural background. Mikey is back in town, having been away for quite a few years. He bangs on Lexi’s door, asking for a bed for the night or at least a shower. Doesn’t she need a man about the house to put up shelves and stuff?After all, they used to be married, he pleads. We still are, she reminds him.
Mikey wheedles himself into the house that Lexi shares with her mother Lil, although neither of the women is keen to see him, and he’s most definitely sleeping on the couch. The rent that he promised doesn’t arrive. He’s finding it difficult to find work due to the big gap in his CV, which he reluctantly concedes was spent acting in the adult film industry. Eventually gets a job selling dope to local oil workers. Lexi and Lil are suddenly much happier to have him around.
Mikey finds someone who is much more impressed by his work history. Lonnie, the neighbour, has a straggly beard, and used to be baby sat by Lexi. Lonnie has fond memories of the night when his parents came home early to find Mikey and Lexi in their bed. Not long after, Mikey and Lexi moved to LA to start a career in porn, something that Lonnie finds remarkably attractive, despite the lack of actual glamour in Lexi and Mikey’s current lives.
Lonnie is a deadbeat who craves status – he pretends to have a military record and bathes in the reflected glory of a man whose films he has watched obsessively. This does not prevent Mikey listing all his films and the awards he won for them every time that Lonnie drives him around town. You get the feeling that some of these statistics may not be, strictly speaking, true.
One evening, when Mikey is feeling flush – he treats his wife and mother-in-law to a big night out – in the local doughnut store. Behind the counter, he sees Raylee, who later decides to call herself Strawberry. Mikey quickly ushers his wife and mother-in-law home, before returning on a push bike to have another look at the red headed doughnut seller. He’s too late, but it’s not long before Mikey is hanging round the store and telling Raylee’s boyfriend that he’s now her ex.
In case this may seem like an innocent love story, please bear in mind that Raylee is still only 17, and though she has a certain sexual precociousness, there’s a serious power imbalance in her relationship with Mikey. Particularly so, as he – as usual – sees her primarily for what he can get from her, and starts to make plans for her burgeoning career in the sex film industry.
The second half of the film amounts to little more than Mikey grooming Raylee. They start a sexual relationship in which she appears to be a willing party, but is, if you apply any remotely objective criteria, an abusive relationship. Many critics have applauded director Sean Baker’s ability to make us feel sympathy for a sexual exploiter despite us knowing what he does to be wrong. I couldn’t stop thinking that it feels more like the normalisation of abuse.
Then again, I seem to have reacted to Mikey in a different way to many critics. They see him as charming (which he certainly is), but also as funny and sympathetic. From the very get go, my reaction was unambiguous, seeing him as both a dick and someone who’s a little full of himself. When he receives poetic justice towards the end, I felt no sympathy at all for someone who clearly deserved everything he got.
Having said this, the idea of Mikey as a likeable character is interesting, as there are clear parallels made between him and the blond buffoon who is trying (and succeeding) to become president. Mikey is self-serving and promises whatever people want to hear if he thinks that it will make them like him, or at the very least, give him what he wants. Sometimes, there is a certain lack of subtlety at the election speeches we hear in the background of key scenes in the film.
I think the supposed message of Red Rocket is not to trust charmers selling snake oil, but despite itself it also manages to give another message. Mikey is able to win over people because they see no attractive alternative. Lexi and Lil just get wasted because what else is there to do? Raylee is excited a career in porn because anything’s got to be better than staying in Texas City. I don’t know if it meant to, but Red Rocket says as much about Hillary Clinton than it does about Trump.
There are plenty of ways in which you could criticise Red Rocket for not being as good as it could be. It’s too long, its moral ambiguity sometimes descends into irresponsibility, and I’m not really sure that it likes working class people very much. But you can’t fault its ambition, and Simon Rex gives a compelling, appalling, contribution as Mikey. One question though. I saw it in the Kino International’s weekly programme of LGBT films. What on earth was It doing there?