Often, there’s a slight delay before an era finds its shape. The Nixon years blossomed gradually in Alan Pakula’s paranoia trilogy, and the Vietnam era played out for decades as a kind of see-sawing national argument on film. And now, already, the Trump era is returning to us in the form of “Red Rocket,” a patriotic comet sailing from the year 2016, the dawn of whatever the fuck this epoch has been. Written by Chris Bergoch and director Sean Baker, the film feels like the best kind of voyeurism — a medium-long bus ride with people you’ve been dying to eavesdrop on your whole life.
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Does this character sound familiar? A white guy who lies constantly; who claims to be a lot richer than he is; who gaslights women; who brags about blow jobs; who causes disasters and blames them on his friends; who pines for power but lives in a state of grievance and outright fantasy. Yep. The main difference between our former president and the main character of “Red Rocket,” Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), is that Saber — a porn star aging out of the industry’s beauty standards — has an unusually huge dick and actually seems to give some pleasure to women.
Saber is an immediately knowable yet constantly shifting, constantly surprising person. The same goes for his estranged wife (Bree Elrod), teenage girlfriend (Suzanna Son), drug supplier (Judy Hill) and drug supplier’s son (Marlon Lambert). These characters feel so real, one suspects, because they’re constructed from direct observation. Mikey Saber is partly Trump, sure, but he’s also Simon Rex, and probably three or four other people whose voices Bergoch and Baker have clocked over the years.
By divining affinities, they’ve combined these inspirations into a convincing genotype, far removed from any rom-com stereotype or stock superhero role, and the same goes for all the humans they’ve pinned in the story. What happens is amazing. We end up watching this asshole, Saber, pulling his tricks, and queasily become cheerleaders to his scams, as almost ineluctably, the camera transforms him from an object of moral repugnance into an object of fascination, and even sympathy. He gathers dimensions, as do all the members of his neighborhood, until, by the end, to misquote Neil Young, even Donald Trump has got soul.
Raymond is a novelist and screenwriter.
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