Texas City Deserves Better Than Red Rocket

He doesn’t work in the San Fernando Valley in Red Rocket, the latest cinematic version from writer and director Sean Baker, about a particularly seedy side of the sex industry. He wrote about that before, in Tangerine (2015), so this time he took his “hero”, a washed-up LA porn star, and transported him to Texas City, a place that seems just a step on the surface or two from the edge of hell.

But while the story unfolds of Mikey Saber who goes home when he’s used up his last penny, Texas City surprises us. This town in Galveston Bay, known for its towering oil refineries and petrochemical factories, becomes a character in the film, especially when cinematographer Drew Daniels gives these industrial structures a sheen that makes them look downright beautiful.

That’s not the dominant version of Texas City, however, which is otherwise mostly comprised of rundown houses, sad donut shops, and a dusty, die-hard landscape. The film is steeped in Baker’s signature interpretation of “poverty porn” today (The Florida Project was another one of Baker’s dives into the world of poor people who live on the fringes). Almost everyone his tasteless protagonist Mikey (played by Simon Rex, a former MTV VJ and actor) encounters while driving around his hometown is broke, jobless, and living on the edge of society.

It’s like Mikey’s amoral, narcissistic view of the world is reflected in the devastated landscape he criss-crosses on his rickety borrowed bike in search of vulnerable, lonely people (both sexes) to manipulate. He’s a suitcase pimp who arrives in Texas City without a suitcase, filthy, filthy and beaten up, takes the bus into town with his last $ 20 in his pocket – and nothing but his grubby charm and big cock.

From then on, the guy wreaks havoc everywhere: first he cheats on his estranged wife (who is also a refugee from the LA porn business after returning to her hometown earlier) and her mother to house him, then he clings to a sad sack of male neighbors to burn cigarettes and ride, and ultimately – and seriously tasteless – seduce an underage beauty he begins to cultivate as his porn star-in-the-making ticket back to Los Angeles. He smiles charmingly all the time, even when he devours Viagra to keep his “red rocket” in good working order.

It’s the glimpses of the other side of Texas City that remind us that Mikey’s perspective is a screeching view of his hometown and Texas as a whole. Mikey spin his web to ensnare the teen who is played by Susanna Son in a Lolita-esque tribute. Every time she drops him and his bike there, we see the other side of Texas City, where people don’t lead desperate lives of poverty and addiction. It’s a smart reminder that Mikey’s narcissism is ultimately what gets and keeps him in his current situation.

In the closing scenes of Red Rocket, it seems pretty obvious that Mikey is going to leave Texas behind and chase the dream of being a big man back to the porn mecca of the San Fernando Valley. But after spending two hours of our lives seeing him in action, we know Mikey better than that, and it seems pretty obvious he’ll be showing up again in Texas, in this hometown that – in Baker’s vision, at least – is his perfectly reflects wretched life.

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