Entertainment

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.

A24
A24
A24

To find out where Red Rocket is playing in Australia, head to flicks.com.au.

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 favourite 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.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.

Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.