(NYFF Review) Red Rocket: A Portrait of a Flawed Empire

It’s been two days yet I still can’t stop thinking about Red Rocket. Fresh off its NYC premiere at the New York Film Festival, it feels very refreshing to watch the film on a big screen. The premise might be really simple: Mikey, a washed up porn star, returns from LA to his industrial hometown in Texas City. However, Red Rocket is so much more than meets the eye: behind the laughter and the groans, Red Rocket is a grim window to understanding how the neoliberal US empire affects its unassuming citizens in subtle ways.

Red Rocket is the newest film by acclaimed director Sean Baker, who directed the 2015 breakout Tangerine and 2017 critical darling The Florida Project. I personally haven’t watched any of his films, however, a lot of viewers who do views Red Rocket to be tangentially different from The Florida Project–that Red Rocket doesn’t have enough of an emotional punch. I agree with that statement–Red Rocket isn’t heartwrenching at all. The film is more of a character study. In Red Rocket, Baker explores an archetype of the main character, Mikey: an approachable, friendly narcissist who relies on petty (some illegal, mostly immoral) ventures to make money. Baker focuses on this character to carry the whole movie, masterfully portrayed by Simon Rex. Even though one might not condone Mikey’s actions at all, but his approachability and highly energetic demeanor makes it so much fun to watch–it feels like you’re being manipulated by his charisma. Simon Rex’s performance might be the main stronghold to the film’s study, but the film is elevated through Sean Baker’s direction revolving around the character. Morally fucked up situations are put in the lens of Mikey’s deeply flawed worldview. You’ll enjoy watching his character spend his day to day in Texas City, until something he says/does will make you wince and think, “Wow, this is fucking dark. Why do I enjoy watching him so much?”

The thing that fascinates me a lot about Red Rocket is how its small details serve as a mirror towards Mikey’s character. The film is set on the brink of the 2016 US elections. We see our characters walk down the road with Trump billboards everywhere, but more often than that, we see our characters watch clips of both Hillary’s and Trump’s speeches at the DNC and the RNC respectively. However, none of our characters are explicitly political. They are not watching these news clips with a specific agenda in mind: they’re watching mindlessly as if they’re watching reality TV like Couples Court or Divorce Court. Sean Baker mentioned in my screening’s Q&A that he wanted to explore this aspect of the 2016 election no matter the party line, and how it is the first election in a long time where its coverage feels like reality TV. Even though a lot of reviews out there views Mikey as a Trumpian character, I couldn’t agree with that reading at all. Both Republicans and Democrats have an equal, small role in the film, and it makes its viewers reflect on the nature of politicians no matter the party line. Neither the Republicans or Democrats could solve the issues plaguing working class, small town America, such as the Flint water crisis or missing & murdered Indigenous women. What they can do for sure is sweet-talk voters and donors during election seasons.

This reflection is also exacerbated through a running theme in this film: industrialization and infrastructure. As a NUMTOT, I am deeply struck by this film’s portrayal of American infrastructure. The carless Mikey and the family of his ex-wife he’s crashing over at constantly walks throughout the city. With no proper infrastructure for commuters in Texas City, they walk through the narrow grass patches between the road and the industrial areas. As Mikey tags along his newfound friend Lonnie around the area, we see a large expanse of enormous, multi-lane highways, stretching even bigger than the town’s downtown area. (This will play a major role in the film, but I won’t spoil you too much.) But most apparently, in almost all the outdoor scenes, we see a background of Texas City’s industrial area: oil refinery pipes spouting black clouds of waste and towering metal structures like shadows behind our characters. These looming factories resemble those in the films of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni: in his film Red Desert, he uses this industrial setting as a main factor in his characters’ development, however, in L’Eclisse, fascist architecture from the Mussolini era lays silent as a background to the main characters’ romance. On first thought, these structures might resemble those from L’Eclisse: they lay stagnant and barely affect the plotline, save for some scenes where Mikey attempts to sell weed to factory workers. But on further analysis, these structures are a perfect reflection of Mikey’s character.

Baker’s inclusion of the 2016 election and American infrastructure drives the point home of the main mirror to Mikey’s character in Red Rocket: American nationalism. As we see factory workers working in inhumane conditions and the working class trying hard to navigate America’s pro-bourgeois urban planning, politicians kept hammering on the notion that they’re making things better for the sake of American nationalism. Indeed, there are a lot of elements of American nationalism in Red Rocket, starting from Mikey’s US flag-patterned rolling paper, to a scene where Lonnie gets confronted at the mall with accusations of stolen valor. Our characters may be apolitical, but they believe that America is the greatest country in the world. As a non-American, I am always perplexed by the US empire hammering down nationalism at every second–from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school to the idea of stolen valor being a federal crime. Through our day to day, Americans know that their life could be so much better, but the empire will keep hammering down nationalism to its subjects to shut them up. If that’s not narcissism, I don’t know what it is.

Mikey’s character is a complete narcissist who does highly immoral things, yet he presents himself as friendly and approachable. Baker’s inclusion of elements of American nationalism/narcissism in Red Rocket is a perfect mirror to Mikey’s character. While the US empire funds forever wars abroad, continues to neglect its most marginalized populations, and criminalizes abortion while letting exploitative industries like the porn industry run unchecked, it presents itself as approachable and inviting–with things like apple pie, Coca Cola, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the Super Bowl–while it continues to (successfully) convince its citizens to love and sustain the empire. Mikey is just a microcosm of the US empire—as much as it is a character study, Red Rocket is also a study of a deeply flawed US empire.

Red Rocket’s critique of the empire is very, very subtle; I needed a lot of thinking to even reach this reading of the film. Once I realized this, I accept that this seemingly simple movie will be in my mind for months. I will also be thinking about the film industry at large, and how the mainstream film industry and franchises uphold US exceptionalism. But at the same time, there are gems like Red Rocket and filmmakers like Sean Baker, who allowed myself to reflect deeper on how the empire affects our lives (and the lives of everyone in the world) in a substantial way.

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