This image is from the official trailer for “Red Rocket,” distributed by A24.

“Red Rocket” is one of the few films released in 2021 that is truly shocking. While some audiences may have been surprised by certain characters showing up in the new Spider-Man, months of hype and speculation surrounding the cast suggest that it may have been more surprising had they not shown up. But two actors making appearances as characters we’ve already seen before doesn’t come close to the jaw-dropping decision to show multiple minutes of Simon Rex’s penis swinging in the Texas wind as he races down a neighborhood block.

But the film isn’t provocative for provocation’s sake. Co-writer and director Sean Baker’s (“The Florida Project”) portrait of an exploitative American narcissist needs every button-pushing image and narrative decision to get its message across. It is exactly the film needed right now to show how fucked up many people running our country are, and why so many people still continue to support them.

While director Adam McKay’s (“Vice”) film “Don’t Look Up” takes a more malicious and condescending attitude towards red state working-class people who vote for men like Donald Trump, Baker’s film sees them as real people — something the film’s lack of big-name movie stars helps convey. While not without flaws and problems, the script portrays them as generally good, honest people. They help others in the community and they have a genuine love and respect for one another. McKay seems confused as to how half the population would put a self-absorbed demagogue in power. Baker, on the other hand, knows exactly why, and he uses the character of Mikey (Simon Rex, “Scary Movie 3”) to show how a person with that charisma manipulates good and well-intentioned people for personal gain.

Trump is a looming figure in the film. With the setting taking place in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, characters are constantly watching Trump’s speeches or Republican Party members talking about how great Trump is. Not only does this choice key us into the conservative, small-town setting, but it also draws a clever parallel between Mikey and Trump to show how so many of the people in this town can fall under the spell of a truly abhorrent man.

The complexity and subtlety with which the film handles Mikey’s character is its true strength. Based on the things he does in the film — like grooming a 17-year-old girl to do pornography — we as audience members know that this is a terrible man and that we should not be on his side. 

But, the film forces you to think critically about it. It doesn’t hammer you over the head with the message that “this is a bad person, don’t do this.” The film trusts you to come to that conclusion on your own. However, if you turn your brain off, it can be very easy to fall into the same trap many of the supporting characters do. Mikey, helped by Rex’s phenomenal performance, is a fast-talking, incredibly charming character who does anything to get other characters and the audience on his side. He tells people what they want to hear and “helps them out” so long as it benefits him as much, if not more. It makes total sense why the people in Texas City fall for Mikey’s performative schtick — it’s the same reason why Donald Trump won Galveston County by 25 points in 2016.

“Red Rocket” may be too much for some people. There are a lot of aspects of the narrative and main character that are extremely uncomfortable. But those choices, their political parallels, and the way in which Sean Baker handles them make this one of the most refreshing and exciting films of the year. 

Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at mitchgr@umich.edu.