A compelling, if flawed, example of the new American noir: Red Rocket reviewed

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

Red Rocket

18, Nationwide

Mikey (Simon Rex) first appears striding down a road in utterly wrecked jeans and shirt. He is carrying nothing and seems to be going nowhere until he walks up the pathway to the house of the wife he abandoned and her venomously disapproving, chain-smoking mother.

Sean Baker’s Red Rocket is a movie set in Texas City in Galveston County. It’s basically an oil town and almost all the action in this film takes place on the perimeter of a vast refinery. Everything is very grainy, especially the dark interiors. This is because the film is shot on 16mm film, a medium which, on the big screen, produces a lively, speckled blur.

After several attempts, Mikey charms his way back into his home. He has been in Los Angeles, apparently making a vast number of award-winning porn films. His one career asset is his mighty todger, an ever-ready prop thanks to the blue pills he swallows when the critical moment nears.

Something terrible has happened in LA that has left him with nothing. The story consists of his attempts – mainly dealing dope to refinery workers – to get back on his feet. This is tricky because, though everybody else seems to have a huge red truck, all Mikey has is a clapped-out bike.

To add to the clear signs of a looming catastrophe, there’s a 17-year-old redhead in the local Donut Hole he seems to fall in love with. And she, thrilled perhaps by the mighty T, reciprocates.

He rushes up to her with a bunch of flowers at one point. She naturally assumes a proposal is on the way, which it is. He proposes to take her to LA and turn her into a porn star – he reckons he can get her $2,000 for the three orgasms she just experienced in his arms. The entire conversation is partly drowned out by the sound of one of those gigantic freight trains passing by a few yards from this moving scene.

This is, at least in part, a comedy. Simon Rex plays Mikey with a virtuoso combination of physical energy and facial expression. It’s not a problem that he’s in almost every shot, it’s a delight. But it’s not really very funny because, beneath the farcical surface, this is another example of the new American noir style that has flooded the downloads, streams and theatres. Mikey’s a bad guy and almost everybody else is pretty nasty. Apart from a couple of brief glimpses of a wealthy part of town, Texas City looks like an impoverished wasteland.

You may be wondering why it’s called Red Rocket. Possibly this refers to Mikey’s wandering wang or to the teen redhead. Or, more interestingly, it could refer to that strange phrase in the American national anthem, ‘the rockets’ red glare’. Certainly this is a film about America. And fragments of TV or radio signal that we are in the midst of the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton is ahead in the polls and Donald Trump is warning of a rigged election.

But I don’t think this is a case of the simple insertion of big politics. Rather, it shows that farcical striving is not restricted to Texas City, it goes right to the top. Everybody was wrong about that election; America voted for the clown who claimed to be well-endowed. At least Mikey was telling the truth.

This film has already been garlanded with awards. These are deserved, even though it is flawed. At 128 minutes, for example, it is, like Mikey’s todger, too long, largely because of the extended flirting with the redhead in the Donut Hole. But Sean Baker knows what he is doing, which is more than can be said for the residents of Texas City.

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