Red Rocket Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Mikey Saber. Now there’s a name. The protagonist (antagonist?) of Sean Baker’s new film Red Rocket is an example of nominative determinism run amuck. A fading porn star’s playful alias it may be, but the 37-year-old Mikey’s narcissistic belief in his own sexual prowess has warped his outlook on life to such an extent that he genuinely doesn’t seem to comprehend the damage he might be inflicting on those around him. Played with puppy-like zeal by Simon Rex (more nominative determinism right there), Mikey is also the Red Rocket of the title, a slang term for a dog with an erection that Baker felt was appropriate for a character who instinctively operates as if the rest of the world is in heat.[1] From the film’s opening scenes charting his return to his hometown of Texas City with his tail between his legs — beat-up and broke; *NSYNC’s make-it-on-your-own break-up anthem ‘Bye Bye Bye’ playing ironically on the soundtrack — Mikey runs around town like a stray hound, disarmingly guileless in his desperation to survive.

He’s a weirdly sympathetic character in this respect, something aided by Rex’s raw, lived-in performance. Cast just three days before shooting was due to start, Rex has been open about the parallels between Mikey’s situation as a washed-up performer still holding on to his Hollywood-adjacent dream and his own show business career, which has run the gamut from modelling (including some solo gay porn work early on), to presenting gigs (he was a VJ on MTV in the 1990s), to semi-regular TV and film work, most notably in spoofs such as the Scary Movie franchise and Superhero Movie (that spoofs are rife in the porn world only adds to the meta quality: Mikey, we learn is bitter about losing his starring role in series of Fast and Furious porn parodies after Paul Walker died).[2] When Rex got the call from Baker a few months into the pandemic — Covid forced Baker to abandon a larger production in order to make something that was safe to shoot with minimal crew and resources — he already had ‘one foot out of the door’ of Hollywood, having relocated to the desert to contemplate whether or not it was time to consider doing something else. Luckily for the movie — and us — he trusted Baker.[3]

And why wouldn’t he? The film’s empathic power is something of a Baker signature. Films such Tangerine (2015) and his Oscar-nominated The Florida Project (2017) offer non-judgemental portraits of people on the margins, especially sex workers (this is his fourth film in a row to feature them).[4] Baker traces his own interest in these characters to an early-in-his career encounter with an adult film star that opened his eyes to the everyday mundanity of her off-camera life.[5] But he took specific inspiration for Mikey (an early iteration of whom popped up in his 2013 film Starlet) from the so-called ‘suitcase pimps’ that are common in the porn business — charming-on-the-surface male performers who supplement their meagre income by managing and exploiting better paid female talent.[6]

That’s the dark side of Mikey that comes through when he meets Strawberry, a red-headed 17-year-old waitress in the local donut shop whose ingénue-like star quality he sees as his way back into the industry (she’s played with remarkable assurance by newcomer Suzanna Son, whom Baker cast — in another meta-flourish — after spotting her in a cinema lobby)[7]. In less assured hands this plot development could have transformed the film into a simplistic Little Red Riding Hood-style allegory, but Baker does something more interesting and more provocative: he keeps us in Mikey’s headspace, wilfully embracing the leering male gaze of exploitation cinema (Italian movies by Fernando DiLeo, Umberto Lenzi and Mario Monicelli were stylistic and tonal touchstones), yet trusting us to pick up on all the subtle ways Red Rocket interrogates and undermines Mikey’s relentless ranting.[8] You can see this in his fractious relationship with his estranged wife Lexi (an ex-performer — brilliantly played by Bree Elrod — whom we gradually come to realise was his former meal ticket). You can see it too in the very real consequences Mikey’s hubris has for Lexi’s feckless neighbour Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), the one character who takes all his stories at face value.

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If you’re still rooting for Mikey at the end of the movie, it’s for him to do the right thing with regards to Strawberry, who’s far from an innocent, but not so worldly you don’t fear for her future. But Baker has also floated alternative readings of Mikey’s relationship with Strawberry. It might be all in his head and part of the skill of the film it the way it mines tension from wondering at what point Mikey’s manic facade is going to crack as he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole.[9] Cinematically speaking, Baker has talked in interviews about the direct influence of Bob Fosse’s Dorothy Stratten biopic Star 80 (1980) on Mikey, but Mikey’s self-delusion also makes him seem like a modern-day equivalent of Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy (Dir. John Schlesinger, 1969).[10] If you know that film, it’s hard not to view Mikey’s opening bus ride through Texas, despondent and defeated, as an inversion of Jon Voight’s wide-eyed escape from Texas 50 years earlier.

Both films also share a similarly unremitting interrogation of the ravages of capitalism. Though that’s a theme running through much of Baker’s work, it’s certainly one that emerges in Red Rocket. Set during the 2016 presidential election cycle that brought Donald Trump to power, one of the film’s strangest sights is Mikey repeatedly riding a beach cruiser bike around town, cheerfully oblivious to the town’s MAGA iconography and its desolate tract housing. He looks oddly like Paul Reubens in Tim Burton’s arrested development comedy Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), but the bike also connects the film to Vittorio De Sica’s Neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). Taken together these references respectively reflect Mikey’s delusional headspace and the harsh reality of his surroundings. This is what happens, the film seems to be saying, when there’s literally no distinction between politics and reality TV. This is what happens when the only thing that trickles down to those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder is the delusional sense of avaricious entitlement enjoyed by those at the top.

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic, The Scotsman
11 March 2022

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[1] Damon Wise, ‘Red Rocket Director Sean Baker On His Indie Career And The Stress Of Stretching A Budget During Covid: “All That Manic Energy, Somehow, Was Captured”’, Deadline, Jan 23, 2022, ; Lou Thomas, ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’, Sight & Sound, April 2022, p49

[2] Zachary Quinto, ‘Life Minus Expectations Equals Happiness: Simon Rex’s Next Act’, Interview Magazine, 10 December, 2021, https://www.interviewmagazine....; Thomas, p. 47. Rex starred in Scary Movie 3 (Dir. David Zucker, 2003) and Scary Movie 4 (Dir. David Zucker, 2006)

[3] Quinto

[4] see also Starlet (2012), Tangerine (2015), The Florida Project (2017)

[5] Sophie Monks Kaufman, ‘Embracing the Male Gaze: Sean Baker on Red Rocket’, Filmmaker Magazine, Dec 9, 2021,

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] For more on the male gaze see Kaufman; Italian exploitation influences: Jazz Tangcay, ‘How *NSYNC’s Bye Bye Bye Ended Up in Sean Baker’s Red Rocket,; Sean Baker, ‘Sean Baker Selects Three Influences on Red Rocket’, Sight & Sound, April 2022, p 50

[9] Wise

[10] For more about Star 80’s influence, see Baker in Sight & Sound, April 2022, p 50

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