Sean Baker’s bittersweet movie, Red Rocket, provides viewers with an unimpeded glimpse of flyover territory in the United States.
It unfolds in Texas City, a somnolent, flyblown town in Texas hemmed in by highways and a railway track and dominated by the belching smokestacks of chemical refineries humming day and night ceaselessly. It’s an alienating industrial landscape of wealth leavened by poverty and despair.
Red Rocket, which opens in Canadian theatres on December 17, is set during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Voiceovers of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump occasionally slip in. In one telling clip, Trump complains, “I’m afraid the election will be rigged. I have to be honest.” Judging by his comment, not much in American politics has changed since then.
The plot is straightforward. Mikey (Simon Rex) arrives in Texas City one sunny day. He has $22 in his pocket. He’s spent the past two days sitting in a bus from Los Angeles and is in dire need of a shower and a bed.
He knocks on the door of a weather-beaten cottage facing a refinery. “What are you doing here?” asks his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod). “Why are you here?” Clearly, Lexi is less than pleased to see him.
“I know, this is unexpected,” he says.
“Go away,” she counters.
Mikey is insistent. He just wants to “crash” for a couple of days. Lexi and her suspicious mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), finally agree to let him in. “You need a man around the house,” he says assuringly, promising to find a job and pay rent.
Mikey is in his early 40s. He’s a washed up porn actor who has returned to his hometown after two decades in California. It is far from clear why he left Los Angeles, but one can assume that the adult entertainment industry has taken a toll on Mikey. Having squandered his earnings, he’s dead broke, forcing him to commute from one place to another on a ramshackle bicycle.
As he looks around for work, he quickly discovers that jobs are scarce and that his credentials in the adult film industry are a distinct disadvantage. In a lame attempt to sugarcoat his cover story, he tells interviewers that he and his wife are making a fresh start in their marriage. This, of course, is untrue. Lexi barely tolerates Mikey, though she doesn’t mind having sex with him.
Jobless and desperate, he resorts to selling drugs for a local pusher. It provides him with sufficient funds to remain afloat.
Baker, in a few bold brushstrokes, paints a vivid picture of a down-at-the-heels town blighted by massive factories pumping out grey, white and black smoke from high chimneys. There are patches of green in the form of lawns and backyards, but they do not alter the town’s overall decrepit appearance.
Rex delivers a remarkable performance as a middle-aged man sliding toward skid row oblivion. Mikey, though amiable and even-tempered, is a con artist and a serial liar.
Smitten by Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a pretty 17-year-old cashier who works in a drab donut shop, he tries to puff himself up by fabricating an elaborate resume. He says he is taking care of his mother, who died long ago. He claims he’s a talent agent. And he pretends to be living in a posh part of town.
Being no fool, Strawberry, played to perfection by Son, researches his background and learns his real identity as a porn actor. Surprisingly, she doesn’t care, seduces him, and becomes his sexual partner.
Having been bowled over by Strawberry’s sexuality, Mikey decides she has huge potential as a porn actress and could well be his ticket back to Los Angeles. When Lexi finds out he has been seeing Strawberry, she hatches a devious plan to exact vengeance.
Red Rocket brims with plot twists, but the best one occurs at it reaches its denouement.