BFI London Film Festival: ‘Red Rocket’ Review

BFI’s London Film Festival is in town! The FilmSoc Blog is back for the 65th edition of the city’s largest film festival, delivering a look at the hits and misses of the 2021-22 season.

Milo Garner reviews Sean Baker’s anticipated new feature: a character study of a washed-up porn star. Please be advised that this review contains mild spoilers for Red Rocket.

Could it be too analogue? I speak to Sean Baker directly. The shift in Red Rocket is a plastic dream: we spin from eternal child reverting to his puerile self after a sudden homecoming over to sinister groomer in search of his ticket back to prurient stardom. It is barely perceptible, the moment of this shift, just a slow cranking of gears, until the same man — depicted in the same way — reveals a scaly underbelly.

The phenomenon of the film is prescient; I think modern mobile culture is, in effect, the most significant recruiting triumph of the adult film industry in all of history. Instagram and TikTok effectively moonlight as a soft-porn gateway to more baring display: this trap is mainly sprung upon the guileless men and boys of the earth (for whom the apparent-liberation of female sexuality has suddenly allowed them access to their wildest fantasies, for a small price), but also serves as an adequate advertisement to the women who might supply them. Low effort digital tricks for quick cash: the dream is real. The dream is now. Reflecting on this cultural explosion has me feeling two ways. One of the ways: conservative and curmudgeonly. Is there any reason why the earth should not become a digital highway of leaking fluids; an ejaculatory fusillade that successfully transfers the wealth from (overwhelmingly) insatiable men to (overwhelmingly) salacious women? Is this, in truth, so bad a thing? Why do its implications trouble me? The second way: concerned and discomfited.

Simon Rex as Mickey Saber

My sense is that The Men have won. That now a scenario exists where a man can desire, strongly, access to an exotic beauty, can search for her online, and at the price of a meal engorge himself on her total form. Or the more grisly reality: a lonely boy in school finds his garishly attractive and totally unattainable fancy on OnlyFans and disappears deep into the underworld of masturbatory delight. Because it is inevitable that children and recently ex-children will be warped into this all-enticing maw. TikTok requires thirteen years for access and contains all the same material. Sex work can be defended to the very hilt, though I would wonder if a universal, unregulated advertisement should — in a good and honest society — be beamed into the minds of every thirteen-year-old (whether or not they fulfill this beam’s potential). Are the victors not, ultimately, those (overwhelmingly male) boardrooms who cash in on this empire of sex? Are these men not like Mikey himself, preaching liberation, easy money, the good life, in exchange for their own massive enrichment?

It is possible that I am the reactive element. That it is myself, and not the world, who has reached his perceptive limit. Though Sean Baker perhaps shares my qualms. He externalizes the phenomenon. He frames his story not, as it would likely be, within the remits of a phone, but rather in the classic recruiter scenario. A well-endowed pornstar comes to town, seduces a pubescent teenager, promises her bright lights and enormous bangles, then whisks her away into his industry. His ex — who relies on turning cheap tricks to keep afloat, and has developed a complementary substance addiction — is the presaged ending to such lofty promises. Mikey himself is no greater a flagbearer: this perennial child (who fucks), unable to untwist himself from the one talent the Lord God provided him. The narrative effect is distinct. Baker’s film is funny, structurally sophisticated, well-cast. The highway-pileup toward the end is perhaps on-the-nose, but then what isn’t. I take more issue in Baker’s choices of representation: if Lolita is written by H.H., we might suppose Red Rocket is directed by Mikey Saber. He (Baker) wants the sex scenes to be as hot as possible — he wants his audience, and I would suspect particularly his male audience, to become complicit in enjoying the pseudo-pornography he produces. Disgust mingled with the obvious effect of erotic display. One can approach this decision from various angles: none entirely convince me. It matches the candy-coloured palette that Baker splays across his many locales: Baker’s ultimate adherence to aesthetic glory necessarily diminishes ethical effect. No matter the texture and detail, one senses a superficiality. But this is a film that resides within a superficial skull; this is a film concerned only with the expression of delusion.

Red Rocket will be released in cinemas from 3rd December 2021:

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