Sean Baker’s ‘Red Rocket’ is a bait and switch, but in a brilliant way

Who would have thought 2021 would see Simon Rex in comparison with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Will Smith, and Andrew Garfield? But as award season heats up, the MTV VJ turned main man has critics drop-jawed over his Purple Rocket. 

The darkish comedy from Sean Baker follows a swaggering over-the-hill porn star on a humbling quest of re-invention in his hometown. In some respects, it is precisely the sort of narrative we have come to anticipate from Baker, centering on an impoverished intercourse employee’s wrestle to seek out happiness towards the squalid backdrop of an uncaring American society. But, Rex’s casting and a bubbly nostalgia give this narrative a shiny exterior, offering a brilliant bait and swap. 

Within the early 2000s, a younger, dumb, and hung Texan named Mikey Davies (Rex) got down to Los Angeles along with his girlfriend and a dream of turning into a porn star. Now, he is broke, battered, and begging on the door of his estranged spouse Lexi (a razor-sharp Bree Elrod) for a sofa to crash on. Rex has the power of a Golden Retriever, enthusiastic and energetic, with a large dopey smile on his face. How may she probably resist him? She will be able to’t. Nobody can. Not the lady he scorned, the weed kingpin he cajoles for work, the starstruck neighbor who performs chauffeur for him, or the 17-year-old Donut Gap clerk, who cheerfully introduces herself as “Strawberry.” Mikey reveals up with empty pockets, the shirt on his again, and a black eye. But, he wields his appeal to chop down others’ defenses, securing shelter, hand-me-down garments, free donuts, stacks of money, and a new alternative for renewed stardom. 

A girl in a yellow top smiles while leaning over donut shop counter in 'Red Rocket.'


Suzanna Son shines in ‘Purple Rocket.’
Credit score: A24

Like different charming Baker characters, Mikey is a hustler. He’ll work no matter angle he can, but he isn’t taking part in the identical recreation as his predecessors. The intercourse staff in Starlet, The Florida Venture, and Tangerine are girls, who’re pushed into this discipline by poverty, desperation, or a pimping boyfriend (recurringly performed by James Ransone). One is a single mom, who takes the work that she will get to take care of her younger daughter, but is aware of this criminal activity may imply her child shall be taken away from her. Two are transgender girls of shade, who face violence, racism, and transphobia on the streets. Mikey’s acquired the bruises to point out he is met with violence, and he struggles to seek out a job as a result of his complete resume may be discovered on Pornhub. So, at first, he appears in line with Baker’s underdogs. Nonetheless, as Purple Rocket strides deeper into Mikey’s character research, we be taught he is a horn canine who will chunk the hand that feeds him, and do a lot worse. 

Rex’s casting and a bubbly nostalgia give this narrative a shiny exterior, offering a brilliant bait and swap. 

Baker’s movies deliver a much-needed empathy to the dialogue of intercourse staff, who’ve lengthy been condemned by a society that makes use of and abuses them with grim indifference. By Mikey’s story, Baker explores the privileges that white straight males take pleasure in in the porn business, offering a creeping distinction to these extra marginalized. When Mikey speaks of his personal troubles, he does so with absolute animation and compelling conviction. When the troubles of different intercourse staff are the subject, he is outright dismissive if not merciless. As an example, in one scene, Mikey talks to a good friend about a younger girl, who he hopes to groom into porn’s subsequent It Lady. “She 17, authorized as an eagle,” he crows in pleasure.

Nonchalantly, his good friend factors to a stretch of land and says, “See these. These are the Texas Killing Fields, brother.” This infamous landmark is the place 30 corpses, a lot of them girls and younger ladies, have been deserted by killers unknown. Mikey shrugs, mirroring the apathy of an excessive amount of of American society when the corpse of a girl who has ever engaged in intercourse work is unearthed. Generally, when such apathy masquerades as righteousness it is chilling, but Mikey’s disinterest butted up towards his eagerness to take advantage of a younger girl is particularly harrowing. 

A sickening shift happens earlier than our very eyes. His Golden Retriever power turns feral. His self-aggrandizing anecdotes flip rancid to the purpose the place a sneering drug seller (a solidly steely Brittney Rodriguez) calls for he cease. Within the background, information clips from the 2016 presidential election play, that includes Trump’s booming voice filled with guarantees. Greater than establishing the movie’s setting, Baker is subtly organising a comparability between con males, who can appeal and wheedle and promise they’re searching for you but can’t be trusted. 

Man peers into darkened donut shop.

Credit score: A24

At first, I used to be thrown off by Rex’s casting. Baker tends to middle his motion pictures on lesser-known or unknown actors, which permits the fact of the characters’ circumstances to really feel all of the extra genuine. But like Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s The Energy of the Canine, this seemingly dissonant alternative is a stroke of genius. Right here, Rex himself is a lure. A part of it is his straightforward appeal as a practiced TV host, but a part of it is viewers familiarity along with his face. Maybe like a porn star, you would not instantly place him should you bumped into him at a gasoline station. But that face lingers in your reminiscence, and it bolsters our speedy response to Mikey. My context of Rex’s MTV persona made Mikey’s pitiful circumstances initially appear really unlucky, not suspect. His large smile received me over because it did many years earlier than. Then, a picture from Rex’s precise previous reminds us starkly how time has handed. Although he is nonetheless undeniably match and good-looking, he has aged out of being the younger heartthrob. This consciousness brings extra speedy stakes to Mikey’s determined quest for another large swing. Irrespective of how briskly he pedals on a borrowed bike, none of us can outrun age. But man, Mikey does attempt.

In some methods, Purple Rocket is Sean Baker’s most mainstream film but.

Echoing Mikey’s nostalgia for the early 2000s is an sudden but upbeat anthem that follows him by moments excessive and low: *NSYNC’s monster hit “Bye Bye Bye.” First performed as he rumbles into city with a black eye on a bus, it appears a mocking declaration that one thing nice has passed by (by by). Later, Strawberry (a glowing Suzanna Son) sings a cowl to him as a gentle and candy ballad, reflecting Mikey’s heady hopes of renewed stardom. Later, the OG model shall be hilariously on-point lyrically, as he flees an astoundingly unhealthy scenario. Lastly, it’s going to play over the ultimate shot, in reverse, suggesting — what? Maybe a frantic hope to rewind and attempt once more? Or the uneasy assurance that his farewells have lastly come to an finish?

In some methods, Purple Rocket is Sean Baker’s most mainstream film but. Quite than casting recognizable stars in bolstering supporting roles, he facilities on a longtime hunk, who carries loads of lusty ’00s nostalgia on brawny, tan shoulders. Baker weaves a catchy pop tune all through, that lifts the temper even in moments of jolting drama. And — most powerfully — he employs Rex’s appeal and Mikey’s hustler can-do to win us over early. But, this is not a sellout, because it’s a eager satire of a particular and poisonous model of American machismo.


Make no mistake, Purple Rocket is a wildly, unapologetically humorous film, but not one which mocks the marginalized. Within the three-ring circus of his personal making, Mikey is showman and clown. And Rex nails this dizzying bombast in a string of rambling monologues. But the place he turns into a contender in the year-end race for Finest Actor, is when he bears his tooth, not in a goofy grin but in a grimace. Collectively, Simon Rex and Sean Baker masterfully pull off the masks of a monster who is masquerading as a man. And the end result is a film that is outrageously enjoyable, savagely good, brightly satirical, and in the end haunting. 

Purple Rocket opens in theaters on Dec. 10.

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