In a year that has given us a surprise bounty of great films about porn — Bad Luck Banging out of Romania, Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, still awaiting a release — the homegrown one might be the best. In fact, Sean Baker’s origin-story-for-a-suitcase pimp, Red Rocket, is so good that “Simon Rex Oscar buzz” is no longer just a random assortment of words.
While I doubt that the average Academy voter is cool enough to recognize what Rex is pulling off here, or that Red Rocket will sufficiently penetrate the mainstream consciousness to make Rex winning a possibility, but should it happen they wouldn’t be wrong. The model turned MTV VJ turned novelty rapper (“My Dick,” anyone?) turned whatever he’s been doing since then shines as “Mikey Saber” in Baker’s follow-up to The Florida Project. In Red Rocket, Rex plays a down-on-his-luck male porn performer returning to his comically bleak hometown of Texas City, Texas to start again, in one of those cosmically perfect unions of fictional character and public persona that only happens once or twice in a generation. Think Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike.
Could anyone else play this character? First and foremost, Rex has the look: overtanned and hairless, curiously slim, slightly wizened in the face and slimeball affable, a guy that somehow still evokes a scumbag skateboarder teen even though he’s 44. It’s hard to imagine that you could find someone who looks this much like a guy who has jacked off on camera who hadn’t actually jacked off on camera. Maybe he exists, but why go looking when you already have Simon Rex? Rex’s past appearances in a handful of solo scenes (masturbation) was famously discovered when he was an MTV VJ, an experience he says was limited to “two video sessions for gay-porn impresario Brad Posey” he did “at the urging of his girlfriend” as a struggling 18-year-old, which didn’t stop newspapers from referring to him as “ex-gay porn star Simon Rex” every time he came up.
Rex’s journey naturally mirrors Mikey’s in some ways, yet the greatness of Sean Baker’s latest effort goes beyond casting. Red Rocket performs an incredibly deft tonal dance, getting us invested in Mike Saber’s journey without turning him into either an easy hero or an easy villain; both of which he could easily be. As a porn producer once told journalist Jon Ronson when he was exploring the porn world, “You can find whatever story you want to tell here.”
That remains true, and if Baker had wanted to make Red Rocket into The Wrestler for porn, in which old hand Mike Saber finds redemption, he could have. If he’d wanted it to be a lurid and sensationalistic exposé of a scummy misogynist who grooms young girls for sex work like Hot Girls Wanted, he could’ve done that too. Red Rocket is sort of both of those and also neither, because porn is neither wholly “good” nor wholly “bad.” Mostly it just is, reminding us of parts of ourselves we might not want to think about after the moaning is over. Likewise, Mikey Saber is both victim and victimizer, a lovable manchild and a flaky scumbag, impossible to exonerate but hard to entirely blame either.
In one of Red Rocket‘s first scenes, a bruised and bandaged Saber cajoles his druggy, estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and her mother (Brenda Deiss) to let him bunk there with them in their surely-reeking hovel (the smell of stale cigarettes permeates every frame). They reluctantly agree, Mikey being nothing if not relentless, though they demand rent. So eventually he goes for a series of job interviews around town, delivered in a montage. Having biked to a series of restaurants and other retail establishments in the only shirt he was able to scrounge, a girl’s tie-dyed number, which Rex somehow pulls off, as only a born model could, Mikey is repeatedly urged to explain the curious 17-year gap in his resume. “Look, fine, I’ll level with you,” Mikey finally admits, in a tone of mock sincerity finely honed from years of use. “My stage name was Mike Saber, you can Google me.”
Prospective employers have a range of reactions to this news, but the rub is always the same: “Good luck on your search and all, but we can’t, like, have a porn star working here! That would be weird.”
This is the societal cognitive dissonance on which Red Rocket is built, that no matter how mainstream porn watching, porn making, and porn culture have become (I remember “porn star” being a popular clothing label at least 20 years ago), actual porn performers are still effectively pariahs. They can be denied even the lowliest jobs, be summarily fired from others they’ve worked for years, be denied bank accounts, etc. Even working at Taco Bell has been deemed too good for someone who has dabbled in porn. It’s both shocking puritanical hypocrisy and also sort of emblematic of how we treat all “necessary workers.” We want to benefit from their labor (or maybe just jack off to it) without the pain of having to acknowledge their humanity.
Again, there’s an easy sob story there, but Red Rocket refuses to turn Mikey into an object of pity. He’s far too proud for that, for one thing, but also too squirrelly. Almost as soon as you acknowledge society’s cruel treatment of him you’re forced to reckon with your own feeling, that you probably wouldn’t want to live with this flakey motormouthed himbo either. Simon Rex rides that line perfectly, of being both lovable and insufferable, charming even as you know he’s trying to pick your pocket.
Mikey eventually finds his white whale/potential next meal ticket working at the local donut shop, a freckled, flirty teen three weeks shy of her 18th birthday and so porn-ready she already has her own porn name: Strawberry, played by Suzanna Son, who’s almost as perfectly cast as Simon Rex. Their ensuing relationship is downright chilling, each projecting some vision of a future self onto the other person, as Mikey carefully grooms her with one little lie at a time.
Especially in America but probably everywhere, we tend to want our exploited classes to appear sad, innocent, quasi-helpless so that we can feel good about rescuing them. Baker’s indelible portrait has the natural rebelliousness of characters who refuse to perform the societal script they’ve been handed.