Over his last few films, Sean Baker has mounted a retreat from what Scott Herring describes as queer urbanism – the assumption that cosmopolitan American cities, especially East Coast cities, must be the trendsetters in establishing queer desire. Instead, Baker prefers the cruisiness of the exurban sprawl, and the eroticism of the endless strip, immersing us in spaces so diffuse, porous and lurid that they defy the interiority and domesticity assumed by the American nuclear family. These zones are glaring, lurid and luminescent enough to eviscerate heteronormative thresholds, setting people adrift in a cruisey world of desire that doesn’t need to be reduced to one any encounter or outcome. Red Rocket is the latest missive from that world, following the Hollywood sprawl of Tangerine and the Orlando sprawl of The Florida Project with an even more distended space – Texas City, part of the greater Galveston sprawl, where the sunkissed expanses of the Lone Star state meet the humidity of the Gulf.
Since this world disperses any clear sense of boundaries, Baker doesn’t exactly open inside or outside it, but on the way deeper into it. The film starts, quite abruptly, on a bus trip that is taking Mike “Saber” Davies, a retired adult movie start played by Simon Rex, back to his hometown, after an absence of almost two decades. As NSYC’s “Bye Bye Bye” blasts abrasively over the soundtrack, removing any residual “outside” that we might assume, the roadside blooms with fertility and fecundity, and Baker introduces Texas City as a series of luminous, luminescent compositions, a tribute to roadside America that is thrown into greater relief by the petroleum refineries that are always in the background, marking the mythical horizon where land and sea dissolve into the sprawl at its most liquid, volatile and mercurial.
Upon arriving at the home of his estranged wife Lexi, played by Bree Elrod, Saber asks if he can crash with her and his mother-in-law Lil, played by Brenda Deiss, for a couple of days. We’re back in the same transitory living conditions as The Florida Project – Saber says that he’s only staying until the bruises from a recent fight go down, after a couple of nights of sleeping rough along the road. As if this situation weren’t provisional and precarious enough, Lexi hasn’t seen Saber for years, and is hardly overjoyed to see him again now, forcing him to wait for ages at the threshold of her property, on the road outside, before she agrees to let him back in. Even a homecoming twenty years in the making isn’t enough, it seems, to restore the domestic thresholds championed by Donald Trump’s vision of the family-friendly homeland, which we hear described in the 2016 Republican Convention in the background.
Right from the start, then, there’s a dissonance between the heteronormative thresholds of Trumpian middle America, and the actual spaces of middle America, which in Baker’s hands become too porous to ever allow desire to be regulated in this way. As in Baker’s previous films, that dissonance crystallises around the sex worker, at once an absolutely necessary adjunct to the nuclear family, but for that very reason an object of supreme disavowal in conservative fantasies of the heartland. Saber realises his bind when he tries to get a job, since it turns out to be harder to find work as an ex-adult movie star than as a convicted felon in Texas City. Interestingly, most employers don’t have a moral issue with what he does; it’s more that they’re concerned for their customers, who (they assume) consume enough adult content to recognise Saber, and be disturbed by their public and private worlds converging.
In that sense, Saber is faced with the challenges of negotiating a queer body in middle age – a body marked by too much sex in public, or too much sex that doesn’t conform to accepted public-private thresholds. His first step, paradoxically, is to re-eroticise his body, and transfer the public of his viewership back into the more diffuse public sphere of the Texas City sprawl. He still has the tics and flexes of his adult movie career, and carries this sensuality into a newfound love for driving, cycling and cruising, as he takes in the lurid dayglow sprawl of his hometown, his own private Texas. These early scenes often recall Gus Van Sant’s films between My Own Private Idaho and Elephant, both in their cruisey continguities and discontinuities. When Saber gets a job delivering weed, Baker moves to a montage-like style, cutting from space to space in Texas City, all loosely anchored in the petroleum towers on the horizon, which both centralise and disperse the radiant sprawl. Eventually, this sprawl, which starts at the skate park where Saber starts dealing (a kind of loose sequel to Paranoid Park) leads him to a friendship with his neighbour Lonnie, played by Ethan Darbonne, and from there to all the cruisey spaces they visit along the highway – strip clubs, malls, game arcades.
Having used the sprawl to re-eroticise his relation to public space, Saber starts to internalise the sprawl as part of his distinct body language. He’s always twitching, glitching and jerking, restless to be sprawling, moving, cruising. Even when lying in bed, he’s looking for better ways to extend his body further, sprawl into more space, embody the expansive reach of the road. His compulsion to have sex, and his insatiable sexual energy, his craving for the to-and-fro motions of intercourse, soon seems like a stopgap for this broader desire to be cruising the highway, where the landscape is so flat, so endless, that sex soon becomes a kind of yearning for some soaring sublimity, like a rocket raring to transcend the drifting plumes of petroleum.
The most restless of these trajectories takes Saber to the most vivid roadside location in the film – a donut shop where he meets Strawberry, a young woman played by Suzanna Son, who quickly becomes his romantic obsession. With the aid of cinematographer Drew Daniels, Saber shrouds this donut shop in his most mercurial lighting so far, collapsing it into a gorgeous sunset, much as Saber first refers to Strawberry as “ginger,” as if she’s emanated straight out of the brilliant orange walls. The next time he sees her, he too wears yellow and orange, and discovers that her real nickname, Strawberry, is even more embedded in the exotic décor, leading him to court her with a series of bald puns: “They glazed into each others’ eyes.” Eventually, they begin a friendship, and then a romance, when Strawberry enlists Saber to driver her to the house of a peer who is obsessed with her, so that she can reject him for good. While this announcement certainly solidifies Strawberry’s romance with Saber, the sheer act of them driving together, and immersing themselves in the sprawl, is the real erotic moment here – it makes sense that one of Saber’s proudest works was a Fast and Furious parody, since all his potency comes from the dispersed energy of this exurban tissue.
In another kind of film, Saber’s obsession with Strawberry could take us into the realm of crime fiction, for he exhibits all the hallmarks of a classic serial killer here – turning up every day in the donut shop, waiting for all the customers to leave at closing time, and even taking Strawberry for a walk in an isolated field behind one of the factories. Yet Baker includes these genre cues mainly as provocations, inverting our expectations to instead present Saber as one of the many figures in his films who exhibit a different kind of care from that prescribed by the nuclear family. It’s the care shown by and amongst sex workers, so it makes sense that Saber not only sees Strawberry as a companion, but as a possible colleague and protégé, realising early on that she has what it takes to make it big in the adult cinema industry, and seeing a plaintive echo of his younger self in her aspirations to move far away from Texas City.
By displacing Strawberry’s parents as the guardians of taste and moral authority, Saber also displaces the Trumpian fantasy of family as the locus of care in American culture. The only parents we see in the film are those of Nash, the young man that Saber rejected on Strawberry’s behalf, who turn up at the donut store and threaten to beat the two of them up. Not only are this duo aggressive, but they’re both vaguely ridiculous, wearing a pair of bright red MAGA-hued shirts as they fight for their son and family’s honour. If this is our one glimpse of responsible parenthood, then our sole vision of responsible property ownership comes in one of the ritzier parts of Texas City, where Saber initially gets Strawberry to drop him after work, in the hopes that she’ll think that he’s “fancy.” He always asks her to leave him and his bike at the same house, and waits for her to turn the corner before cycling back to his neighbourhood – and the plan works pretty well until the owner of the house shows up with an enormous shotgun, which she sticks right in his face as proof of the sanctity of property.
That absence of proper parents or property owners leaves Saber and Strawberry to romance each other through their shared erotic investment in the Texas City sprawl. They go to a strip joint for their first date, but the real event is cruising along the highway, much as they have sex in the truck platform, directly in front of the main petroleum refinery. Their next date takes them to a seaside fair, where they ride the rollercoaster and then the ferris wheel, before settling into a long languorous walk by the ocean, as Baker pans down to their reflections, and the distorted neon lights, now liquefied by this endpoint to the massive sprawl. Their romance thus liquefies the sprawl itself, or allows them to lean into the liquidity of the sprawl, starting the very next morning, when we cut to Saber putting his feet on the handrails of his bike, and cruising with jouissance along a flooded highway. From there, we cut again to him looking out across the open ocean – the first time we clearly see the ocean horizon – before shifting back to a series of sweaty close-ups that come nearer to adult cinema than anything we’ve seen yet, harnessing the ocean as so many crystal beads of sweat.
While Saber is only working out, he’s getting buff in anticipation of a second wind to his adult film career, thanks to the erotic sprawl that he has re-accessed with and through Strawberry. Only through immersing himself in the Texas City sweep can he return to the potency of adult cinema, while his revelation of his career to Strawberry, along with his plans for their shared future, enlivens this space even more, ushering in a galactic aerial shot and a burst of cosmic wind that buoys the camera up into the first bridge that we see, the first real elevation above this endless flatness, which he traverses to reach her house in San Leon. Strawberry feels this shift too, leaning into the sea breeze that same afternoon while asking “Do you feel the sunshine?” before eroticising the space between them more cruisily than ever before, with a dance-embrace that sees them holding hands, then drifting, then reuniting, in the wind. Their sexual attraction now takes on a profound tenderness, an open, curious, emergent quality, that makes her confident to sing a song to him for the first time – a song she still hasn’t finished – before he introduces her to his craft by filming them both for the first time as well.
Precisely at this moment of maximal tenderness, Baker reminds us that the sprawl, like eroticism, is precarious – it’s his version of the high-risk, high-reward queerness that has often vanished from more streamlined urban subcultures. Just as Saber’s crusising is peaking, he takes it a step too far, forcing Lonnie to veer from the far left lane to the far right lane at the very moment that he formulates his vision for “Saber Entertainment,” en route to San Leon, where he plans to pick up Strawberry and hit the road for Hollywood. For a brief splendid second, everything comes together, and Lonnie manages to absorb the twisting trajectories of Saber’s bike into his command of the car, as we shift abruptly to the car pulling up rapidly at Strawberry’s house. But this line of flight is quickly shut down when we learn that Lonnie’s veering motion caused a massive highway pileup, closing down the road for miles back and hours to come, and that fleeing the scene was the only way to keep Saber’s own flow going.
Saber can’t ride that flow forever, however, ushering in a fractured third act that alternates between a new stasis and ever more manic efforts to restore the cruisey energy of his romance with Strawberry. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Baker reverts to a highly uncharacteristic shot for the film – a stately, self-consciously “composed” shot of Saber as he contemplatively smokes a cigarette, until he learns that Lonnie isn’t going to turn him in, and celebrates with the most exuberant, curving, volatile bicycle trajectory so far. Yet this gives way to an even longer pause, as he slowly retreats to bed, and Lexi and Lil exchange a pair of knowing gazes that, again, are quite incongruous with the syntax of the film as we’ve experienced it. Both this shot and the earlier still shot of Saber are bathed in a lurid green light, cementing them as part of the same shutdown of the sprawl, which becomes a broader disavowal of Baker’s sex worked body when Lexi and Lil gather their friends, surprise him when he’s naked in bed, and pin him in a single unbearable vulnerable pose as they take his money, take his drugs, and tell him that he has to move out now, and find a place of his own.
By this stage, even the most exuberant bike ride isn’t enough to restore Saber’s primal erotic relation to the sprawl, so he sheds his clothes for the first time in the film, and runs stark naked along the factory perimeter, as Baker responds with the first and last full-frontal nudity. While he eventually returns, and recovers his clothes, he continues this run the next morning, recapitulating all the sprawl he has covered over the course of the film to hit Strawberry’s house just as the sun rises. Shot and lit in beautiful pastels, and framed in the clearest and crispest lines we’ve seen so far, this is the most striking image of Red Rocket, splitting the difference between the sprawl at its most lurid, and the heteronormative home spaces it tends to dissolve. When Strawberry comes to the door in stylised and idealised relief, she might easily be the wife Saber never had, or be acting out one of the fantasies he plans for their shared adult movie career – and the film ends on that cusp between Trumpian and queer models of care, shifting from the opening NSYNC track, to a minor key refrain, to ambient birdsong, to prevent the audience finding any stable space, any way to reduce this image to a public marriage or a private fantasy, leaving us suspended, queer, in public-private space.