After reading all the screenwriting books out there. OK, perhaps not all, but almost, a pattern emerges, certain claims...and one such immutable law of storytelling --they proclaim-- is that characters must have an arc. If they don’t have an arc, they say, you don’t have a story…look at Tootsie!
OK, but look at Bond, James Bond! No arc there. And look at The Big Lebowski, and Ferris Bueller and Goodfellas. Great films. Zero arc.
Which leads me to Red Rocket. A great indie by Sean Baker based on the script by Baker, co-written with Chris Bergoch. Red Rocket shows us a few weeks in the life of former porn star Mikey Saber. Mikey, beat up and almost penniless returns to his hometown, far from the “huge” success that he purports to have enjoyed back out West. Los Angeles to be precise. He hits up his former porno partner, and still-wife Lexi, who lives with her mother Lil, and finagles his way into crashing on their sofa, and later into Lexi’s bed.
After several failed attempts to gain employment (his 17 years as an adult actor don’t go over that well with potential employers), Mikey starts dealing weed. He contributes to the household, saves up three grand, and hangs out with the neighbor Lonnie, whom Lexi used to babysit, and who now pretends to be an army veteran.
It’s a study in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Up to this point, all the questions have been answered...he’s found shelter, income, and even friends. Mikey seems to have stabilized…until he meets donut shop girl Strawberry, who’s prepping for the SAT, which kicks him into the next level of need...a comeback.
At first, he is smitten, and it seems he simply wants to get into her pants. But he sees her as more than a cute 17-year-old…she is his meal ticket. Strawberry as his protégé is his way back into the adult biz. He’s been telling her all kinds of tall tales about himself, his success in LA, and even pretending to live in a nice neighborhood. She seems to be buying it wholesale because Mikey is her way out of Texas City much faster than the college route. And with Mikey’s 3 grand, they have just enough to start anew in LA.
The creepiness of a 50-year-old porno dude seducing and priming a 17-year-old for a “glamorous” life in front of video cameras doesn’t play a role here. Their mutual need to escape the dreary existence enveloped by refineries and lack of opportunity overshadows impropriety. Investing time in such considerations would be a luxury.
When he and his buddy Lonnie cause a massive accident on the local freeway, Mike lets him take the fall, even though he was the reason for it. With a lack of remorse and a dire need to get out of Dodge, Mikey announces to Lexi that he’ll be leaving again. She, however, won’t have it and enlists the help of Mikey’s dealer and her entourage who take Mikey’s moolah and kick him out of Lexi’s house.
Stripped and penniless, he shows up at Strawberry’s doorstep. She is an apparition and a vision and a fantasy in a red bikini. Mikey has an emotional moment…and…cut to black. The end. For those who love everything neatly wrapped up, this ending sucks. I dug it, but then, I dig ambiguous endings.
What’s fascinating about this story is the glimpse into a microcosm that is not much explored in narrative film…the life of washed-up, retired adult actors. Combined with the Texas city setting it makes for a fascinating premise. The setting (as in other recent Baker films) plays a big role…not just as the physical surrounding, but the atmosphere which reeks of oil wealth for the few, while spewing dirt on the many, including the characters. This partly informs why Mikey does what he does…with oil level riches definitely out of his reach...he had to become a hustler. Porn was his way out of the hopeless neighborhoods of refinery town.
But…Red Rocket is a great story even though Mikey doesn’t have an arc. Although the film is peppered with moments that humanize Mikey, he doesn’t learn and doesn’t grow in some sort of redemptive way. He’s a hustler, a manipulator, and a salesman. That’s not just what he does at this point in his life…it’s who he is, or who he’s become. His survival instincts have eliminated a sense of empathy, and he seems to genuinely believe that introducing Strawberry to adult work, with him as her swami, is the right thing to do. The only thing to do. For him and her. He’s a sweet-talking predator. Or perhaps he only believes his own BS. No matter. We will never know. Such is the nature of any slick and desperate salesman.
Now, one could argue if one were so inclined, that in the very final scene, Mikey does have an epiphany, that he experiences some sort of transformation at Strawberry’s doorstep. But one could equally not. Perhaps his tears are tears of joy at the prospect of another shot at the adult big time. Such was the intention of the filmmaker. And this is the beauty of ambiguous endings…it’s up to us. Dig it?
Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Directed by Sean Baker