The End of 'Red Rocket' Reckons with the Grossness of the Male Gaze
By putting viewers into Mikey's head, director Sean Baker has made an ambiguous ending that detaches from reality.
This post contains spoilers for the end of Red Rocket.
Sean Baker has relieved himself of the burden of ending his movies in a literal way. In 2017's The Florida Project his child hero Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) runs away from her troubled life in an Orlando-area apartment complex and into Disney World. It's a happily ever after moment for a kid who may never get that. "I did find it liberating with The Florida Project to not deliver the literal ending for the audience," he tells Thrillist. "I realized that a lot of my favorite films allow the audience to write their own endings. In that case, I think it's really about getting into the head of little Moonee. Even if it's her escape through fantasy, let's embrace that."
In Red Rocket, out now in limited release, Baker does something similar, except this time it's way ickier. Simon Rex's Mikey Saber, a former porn star, is planning a grand escape from his hometown of Texas City, Texas, which he slunk back to after a mysterious ejection from Los Angeles. He's made himself the boyfriend of a 17-year-old donut shop employee who goes by Strawberry (Suzanna Son) and convinced her that she should run away to LA with him and become a porn star under his guidance. Except, before he can go, his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), decide to fuck him over the same way he was planning on fucking them over. They reach out to Leondria (Judy Hill), the weed dealer who he was working for, and she sends over her daughter (Brittney Rodriguez) to get his earnings.
So instead of pulling up to Strawberry's pink house abutting the Gulf of Mexico in a taxi, he walks there broken and dejected. As the door opens, the sounds of "Bye Bye Bye," the NSYNC song that has basically become Mikey's theme, play in reverse. Strawberry opens up the door in a red bathing suit. She is backlit and gyrates against the door. Based on everything we have watched so far, it's a disturbing image. Instead of rejecting him at his lowest, we see this girl offering herself up to him exactly as he had hoped. Baker then cuts before we can see whether this is just a projection of Mikey's brought on by exhaustion, or whether there's any sort of truth to the image.
Baker confirms that, yes, at the most basic level it's a "fantasy." Strawberry is not actually answering the door in a bikini. And yet there's still a lot left up for interpretation. "Is it in his head? Is it the sugar-coated version of what's really happening in his head?" Baker suggests. "Or perhaps, maybe it's saying to the audience that this has all been a fantasy, that this is all a retelling of the Lexi-Mikey story in a weird way?"
Once Baker decided that he was going for a more abstract ending, he leaned into Mikey's viewpoint, as upsetting as that might be given what we know about this person, a passively sexist egomaniac. (Mikey loves to explain how he is a multi-time winner of a blowjob prize at the porn awards, and has a long explanation for those who respond by asking why a dude even receives a trophy in that category given that women are doing all the work.) "I knew that I was doing this tightrope act, sort of this balancing thing between sensibilities and gazes, especially. Meaning that I wanted to be objective, but at the same time, I wanted to get into Mikey's psyche enough where I have the audience literally in his head," Baker says. "At the end I was like, 'You know what? I think I have to, even though this is risky and even though I think it could be very disturbing and off-putting, I have to sort of embrace that male gaze at this moment.' Because that's part of what Mikey is. Like even in that moment where he's all down and out, it's all still about him and his fantasy and his best-case scenario for himself."
That perspective shift is designed to make audiences squirm in their seats. For most of the running time, you watch Mikey in horror while at the same time finding yourself regrettably charmed by his run-on sentences and stories that only probably have a loose connection to reality. Then, in the final moments, you are asked to see the world through his eyes and remember it's a perverted Penthouse dreamscape in his head.