As a Screen Rant article pointed out last month, there are many aspects to Tony Soprano that just haven’t aged well. His adultery, of course, but also his domestic violence, his backstabbing, his racism, and his behavior towards his children, all of which are details included in an ostensibly serious piece of writing about why the lead character and “best mobster on TV” from HBO’s hit series just doesn’t cut it as a role model in 2021. But why would he be a role model at all, in this year or any other? It seems like an absurd thing to write about if one has seen the show, as if The Sopranos was concocted as a how-to in becoming the ideal male and not a critique of what men are expected to be. The article only exists because it fits neatly into a burgeoning form of cultural criticism and production, where comforting, good-natured media about morality and “being a good person” like Ted Lasso and The Good Place have flourished, while media centered on people of questionable ethics receives more scrutiny.
We have revived the idea that art exists to tell us how to act; that the protagonists in our stories set an example for us. As a consequence of the panic surrounding Joker back in 2019, armed guards appeared at screenings in case any mad fan wished to emulate the Joker’s twisted actions. Martin Scorsese has become an avatar for the notion that directors who make movies about criminals are somehow condoning crime (an idea perfectly summed up by this meme). And, more recently, discourse has been swirling around Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film Licorice Pizza, which depicts a murky relationship between a 15-year-old and a character in her twenties — so much so that it was brought up in an interview with The New York Times. As Anderson points out in the interview, no line is actually crossed between prickly characters Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman). But the issue for some viewers lies in the fact that it’s not a relationship that would be acceptable in real life, and such a relationship is not properly reckoned with for being wrong within the film.
Enter Sean Baker’s seventh feature, Red Rocket. In 2021, the acclaimed director follows his lauded, heartstring-tugging 2017 film The Florida Project with one about a guy who is having sex with a teenager. His name is Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) and he’s the absolute worst guy you know from high school, back in his hometown to over-embellish the temporary success he found as a porn star in L.A. He lies like it’s his second language and makes promises that he never intends to keep. He moves through the world looking for the next best thing to benefit Mikey Saber and Mikey Saber alone, and if he hurts other people well, so be it. After going belly-up in the L.A. porn scene, Mikey has trudged back to his Gulf Coast roots 15 years after leaving them, ostensibly to make amends and tie up loose ends. But he enters the lives of his estranged Texas City family like a vampire: Once he’s invited inside, he starts to suck them dry. Mikey Saber’s moral compass only points inwards, and every time you think he can’t get any worse, he does.
As the credits rolled after my first screening of Red Rocket at this year’s New York Film Festival, I felt ecstatic. Here was a film which flagrantly compels its audience to empathize with a creep and a con man. I was just as effortlessly charmed by Mikey Saber’s charisma as the people of his world are; as seduced by his promises and grand gestures and his million-dollar smile. And, well, it feels good. I sat in the theater thinking to myself, “No, he surely won’t be allowed to go that far,” only to watch him do it. It was both refreshing and exhilarating to watch an anti-hero go that low, during a time where it seems like audiences feel obligated to reject bad fictional behavior that isn’t explicitly punished. It doesn’t mean that I admire Mikey Saber, nor that I’m a bad person for thrilling to his corrupt and corrupting ways, but that it’s fun to root for a fictional character who is an endearing piece of shit, and boring to watch people become perfect moral agents.
Because despite our alignment with Mikey as our protagonist, Red Rocket is the opposite of a redemption story. It’s a film about how some people fundamentally can’t change. What begins as Mikey promising that he only wants to “come in and hang for a couple days” with his scorned, estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), becomes a weeks-long, parasitic relationship in which Mikey actively worsens the lives of those in his immediate orbit. But the people in Texas City are already hip to Mikey’s tricks, immediately wary of his intentions and reluctant to give him a second chance when he rolls into town like a deadbeat bat out of hell. He promises to get a steady job and pay his share of rent at Lexi and Lil’s — instead, he blows every interview puffing his chest about his porn career and takes up a gig selling weed to the wrong people behind his suppliers’ back. He restores Lexi’s faith and trust only to swiftly break it, eventually deepening the wound he’d left festering in her and abandoning her like he did when he went solo in L.A. porn.
Once Mikey meets Strawberry (Suzanna Son), his priorities do a one-eighty. His life is no longer about building back his relationship with Lexi, getting himself a steady job, making things right with his friends and proving that he’s changed. It’s no longer about Lexi at all — it’s if she never even existed. It’s about winning the attention (not the heart, mind you) of a teenage girl so that he can exploit her for his next scheme. And once Mikey’s wriggled his way into Strawberry’s life, he begins planting his seeds, goading her into becoming a porn star so that he can reclaim his former glory. Mikey Saber is, above all else, a hustler. People are only dispensable tools on his journey towards personal fulfillment, only ever stepping stones to getting back on top of the heap. You peel back the magnetic, sweet-talking layers of Mikey Saber and it’s just desire and greed where a conscience should be.
A lesser film might use this fact to pander to its audience, but Red Rocket doesn’t. Although Mikey somewhat receives his just desserts by the end, in the most crucial aspects, he gets away with murder. But we don’t need Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch to put a big sign over Mikey Saber’s head that says “bad guy,” even though he is never sent to a metaphorical Gulag during the film. They trust the viewer to figure out how to feel on their own.
Of course, it’s not as if every writer or filmmaker should receive a free pass to avoid interrogation of their text, but a growing hesitancy towards grey morality in fiction won’t do anything good for art or how audiences engage with it. It can be hard to tell the difference between critiques rooted in progressivism and those motivated by puritanical conservatism. How many times a month can someone go viral for suggesting that there should no longer be sex scenes in our already sexless mainstream cinema output, dominated by children’s stories about good guys versus bad guys?
So, if a film’s protagonist commits deeds that are not properly denounced, what else could their creator be saying other than “these are behaviors I approve of”? Empathy for a villain or anti-hero, or a person who engages in degenerate behavior, must mean, not that such characters are simply human, but that empathy gives license to degeneracy. I suppose it is easier and safer when art holds our hand and does all the thinking for us; when we know that Captain America is good and Thanos is bad. When our stories reflect binary views of right and wrong, contending with human morality on par with a Disney film, the world feels like a more comfortable and accessible place.
But the world is not a comfortable place, and it’s often rigged in favor of guys like Mikey Saber. No matter how much of a cancerous loser we know him to be, his inflated sense of self is so grand that his losses still translate into wins. Is Mikey the sort of person I would like to be? No, but he’s worth thinking about, and even trying to understand because he exists in this world with the rest of us. There is no moral high ground to be gained from disavowing art which dares to contend with the fact that people are not perfect bastions of moral good; that we can align ourselves with ugliness because ugliness exists in us all. If Mikey Saber gets off too easy for you, it’s because he’d probably get away with it in real life. And you know what? You’d probably let him.
Brianna Zigler is a film and entertainment writer whose work has appeared at Paste Magazine, Consequence, Polygon,The Playlist, and elsewhere.