Twenty years from now—or maybe two years from now, given the accelerated rate of our current culture—a remake of Red Rocket will come along starring Logan Paul or somebody similarly grossly of-the-moment meme-tastic. But for this Christmas Gen-Xers like me are getting our O.G. version starring Simon Rex, former MTV V.J., amateur porn star, icon to an entire generation of gay men, ho-ho-ho-ing it up in director Sean Baker’s latest now in theaters. Red Rocket is kind of a weird fit for Christmas! It’s not at all a stealth holiday flick like Baker’s terrific Tangerine of 2015, which strung some tinsel up on a Hollywood Boulevard doughnut shop and called it a Mary Xmas. But we’ll allow it, because Red Rocket does have a large package that it wants to gift us, and what’s inside will definitely make your yuletide, you know. Festive!
We first meet Mikey Saber (Rex)—and yes that’s a stage name, why do you ask—as he staggers off a bus in his long forgotten hometown of Texas City, Texas, a sweaty little podunk buried deep in the oily armpit between Houston and Galveston on the gulf coast. Mikey is bloodied and bruised and you immediately get the feeling this is how he shows up any and everywhere—one pictures an endless string of Susies from Curb Your Enthusiasm barking at his behind for him to get the eff out of any place he lands for too long; a parade of pitballs chasing him from town to town as he hightails it. His footwork has experience, well worn, carved deep, and this movie will give it its next vigorous workout. Dance, V.J., dance!
Texas City immediately reeks of familiar Sean Baker terrain—the deserted one-story strip malls stretching from American sea to shining sea, the horizon dotted with refinery stacks the locals affectionately dub “Old Smokey” and the like. Where the characters of The Florida Project went wilding under the shadow of the Walt Disney World resorts, here they dare to dream of a gazebo poised on the edge of treeless runoff reservoir—if the grass looks soaked in gray water it’s their little slice of heaven. Add a good long conversation contemplating where the doughnut holes come from and hell, who needs anything else?
Well Mikey, a bottomless sociopathic void who devours and corrupts all he comes into contact with, does for starters. His estranged wife and former co-star Lexi (an ace Bree Elrod), who beat it back to Texas City a few years previously to live with her mom (Brenda Deiss)—the subtext about women’s shorter shelf-lives is noted, if unremarked—knows full well to chase him off her property the second him and his tagalong hell-storm arrives. But Mikey, a shark with the toothy charisma of a killer whale in the middle of its best big hoop routine, can smell blood and weakness from miles away. And so when Lexi lets him take a shower a shower turns into a place to stay, and a place to stay turns into sex, and sex turns into smashed coffee pots and drug wars and Mikey sleeping with the 17-year-old girl named Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who works at the wildly depressing doughnut shop down the street.
Dominoes tumble effortlessly in Mikey’s wake; he’s all twenty car pile-ups and tornado tracks, ones he effortlessly slithers out from like the rainbow sheen of motor-oil slicks. Smooth as Ex-Lax and just as sickening. There’s not a whiff of exploitation this grifter won’t sniff out within milliseconds—give him a week and he’s halfway to turning Strawberry into an amateur porn-star, encouraging her to toss aside high school, all while out the other side of his mouth Lexi’s halfway convinced he’s ready to play house like nice people.
Rex, in a truly breathtaking performance I never in a million years would have guessed was anywhere near him, makes Mikey sing by a symphony of sickening flat thuds—a dog’s jaws slapping shut on any meat it can scrounge. Privilege unleashed, unchecked, unmoored from anything approaching decency or kindness. He’s a whirlwind of self-involved desperation, engorged by prescription blue pills and rolling through this dazed town like the Blob in stretch denim. This here is a Monster Movie, one immediate to our moment—do note all the Donald Trump speeches half glimpsed on the TV—and yet timeless too. We’ve all unfortunately had a Mikey in our lives, and that’s how Mikey likes it. Know the signs! Batten the hatches! Protect yourselves and your Big Gulps before it’s too late! What a terrific funny and terrifying portrait of particular American Lunacy this is.