Red Rocket Image

Red Rocket

By Bradley Gibson | March 15, 2022

Baker infuses Red Rocket with the same ferocious, raw energy he’s brought to his other hits, Tangerine and The Florida Project. He seems to love the low end. His movies center on slums, poverty, substance abuse, and ignorance. When this is offered as humor, the audience is presented with a dilemma: are we laughing with or at the characters? It seems unlikely that a middle-class, educated audience could be laughing with empathy towards these people. If we’re laughing at them, then what kind of crap humans are we? I’m not saying it’s not funny because, God help me, it is. It creates an uncomfortable space where we consider the ethics of how we approach film. Is it poverty porn? Is this really just Hillbilly Elegy done as a comedy? Are we watching a trainwreck that we can’t tear ourselves away from, fixated in morbid curiosity for the sideshow freaks?

Interpretation of art, as a rule, should sit with the beholder. You take from it what you bring. However, we try to hold ourselves to a higher standard as a society, especially lately. There are cases where it’s important to ask what was in the filmmaker’s mind because intent matters. Baker seems to have some affection for these incredibly unsympathetic characters. Was he raised in circumstances as seen here? But, again, are we laughing with or at them? He doesn’t seem to be trying to send any particular message.

“[Rex] goes all-in and sells it with incredible skill…”

Still, the events and people are so exaggerated they don’t authentically represent a real look at life in flyover-America. Is that where the disconnect is? Can New York and L.A. filmmakers really know what life is like for poor people? Baker did know how to do this and did it successfully with The Florida Project. Harmony Korine arguably did it with The Beach Bum. It can work when there is a moral center. Perhaps that’s expecting too much as Red Rocket lacks even one agreeable main character to provide a moral anchor. There are only sheep and wolves.

All this ruminating takes nothing away from the performances, particularly from Simon Rex. He goes all-in and sells it with incredible skill and passion. Suzanna Son as Strawberry is also a revelation. She has star quality and a screen presence that is extremely rare. We will be seeing her again.

Baker is an undeniably talented filmmaker. Red Rocket is very well made, particularly for a lower-budget indie. Shooting in 16mm film is a nice touch and gives the images a rare authenticity. Any misgivings about the narrative don’t seem to be slowing the wave of glowing accolades rolling in, so, as always, see it and decide for yourself.

Red Rocket (2021)

Directed: Sean Baker

Written: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Starring: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

Red Rocket Image

"…can New York and L.A. filmmakers really know what life is like for poor people?"

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