Texas City Deserves Better Than “Red Rocket”
Sean Baker's signature brand of poverty porn arrives in the Lone Star State to paint a less-than-nuanced picture of an East Texas oil town
In Red Rocket, writer-director Sean Baker’s latest cinematic take on an extra-seedy side of the sex industry, he isn’t working in the San Fernando Valley. He’s covered that before, in Tangerine (2015), so this time out he’s taken his “hero,” a washed-up L.A. porn star, and transported him to Texas City, a place that on the surface seems to be just a step or two from the edge of hell.
But as the story of Mikey Saber — going home again when he’s down to his last dime — plays out, Texas City surprises us. This Galveston Bay town known for its looming oil refineries and petrochemical plants becomes a character in the film, especially when cinematographer Drew Daniels infuses those industrial structures with a glow that makes them seem downright beautiful.
That, though, isn’t the dominant take on Texas City, which otherwise consists mostly of dilapidated houses, sad donut shops and a dusty, hardscrabble landscape. The movie is imbued with what is Baker’s now-signature take on “poverty porn” (The Florida Project was yet another of Baker’s dives into the world of poor people living on the fringe). Just about everyone that his distasteful protagonist Mikey (played by Simon Rex, an ex-MTV VJ and actor) encounters as he cons his way across his hometown are broke, out of work and living in the margins of society.
It’s as if Mikey’s amoral, narcissistic view of the world is reflected in the blighted landscape he crisscrosses atop his rickety borrowed bicycle, looking for vulnerable, lonely people (of both sexes) to manipulate. He’s a suitcase pimp who arrives in Texas City without even the suitcase, filthy-dirty and beaten up, riding a bus into town with his last $20 in his pocket — and nothing else but his smarmy charm and big dick.
From then on, the guy wreaks havoc wherever he goes: first conning his estranged wife (who’s also a refugee from the L.A. porn business, having returned earlier to their hometown) and her mother to put him up, then latching onto a sad-sack male neighbor to bum cigs and rides, and finally — and seriously distastefully — seducing an underage beauty whom he begins to groom as his porn-star-in-the-making ticket back to Los Angeles. He smiles charmingly all along, even as he gobbles Viagra in order to keep his “red rocket” in working order.
It’s the glimpses of the other side of Texas City that remind us that Mikey’s perspective is a pie-eyed view of his hometown and Texas as a whole. In spinning his web to ensnare the teenager, played in a Lolita-esque homage by twenty-something Susanna Son, Mikey convinces her that he lives in the pretty part of the city, in a lovely, upper-middle-class neighborhood. Each time she drops him and his bicycle off there, we see the other side of Texas City, where people aren’t leading desperate lives of poverty and addiction. It’s a sly reminder that Mikey’s narcissism is, after all, what puts him, and keeps him, in his present situation.
By the closing scenes of Red Rocket, it seems pretty obvious that Mikey is going to put Texas behind him once again, chasing the dream of being a big man back to the San Fernando Valley’s porn Mecca. But after spending two hours of our lives watching him in action, we know Mikey better than that, and it seems pretty obvious that he’ll turn up in Texas again, in that hometown that — in Baker’s vision, at least — perfectly reflects his pathetic life.
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