A film review by Craig J. Koban September 21, 2018


2018, R, 110 mins.


Richie Merritt as Ricky Wershe Jr.  /  Matthew McConaughey as Richard Wershe Sr.  /  Jennifer Jason Leigh as Alex Snyder  /  Bel Powley as Dawn Wershe  /  RJ Cyler as Rudell Boo Curry  /  Rory Cochrane as Agent Byrd  /  Eddie Marsan as Art Derrick  /  Bruce Dern as Grandpa Roman Wershe  /  Piper Laurie as Grandma Verna Wershe

Directed by Yann Demange  /  Written by Noah Miller, Andy Weiss, and Logan Miller



WHITE BOY RICK is a new fact based period crime drama that's painted in extremely familiar gangster genre formulas (down on his luck hoodlum rises above his station in life to become a major criminal player) and a somewhat rushed tone that could have perhaps benefited from a mini-series or long form documentary format.  Yet, it's potently and authentically acted throughout and contains a hook that's most certainly fresh and worthy of cinematic exploration.  

That, and WHITE BOY RICK rises above some of its deficiencies with stylish and evocative direction by Yann Demange (who made his directorial debut with the critical darling 71) and a gritty sense of atmospheric verisimilitude that's hard to shake.  WHITE BOY RICK is a down and dirty white trash gangster flick that rarely glamorizes the lifestyle of its titular character and his surroundings

The film is, as mentioned, based on a truly engrossing tale of Detroit residing Richard Wershe Jr, who in the 1980's became the youngest FBI informant in American history.  He started working for the bureau when he was just 14 years old, during which time he was a low level hustler and drug and gun peddler.  His nickname of "White Boy Rick" came from the fact that he was a part of a largely African American gang in his home city in 1984.  When all was said and done, by the time Richard was 17 he was imprisoned for life for non violent drug crimes, after he helped the feds put a number of crocked cops away.  I'm not entirely sure what WHITE BOY RICK wants to say, though, about its main character's young life in crime (I'll dive into that in a bit), but I found that it worked perhaps better as a dysfunctional family drama showcasing Richard's relationship with his dad than it does as a thoroughly intoxicating and complex tale of his highly unlikely rise to prominence with the FBI and the criminal underworld of the time. 



The film follows obligatory origin elements for this type of genre story and quickly introduces us to 14-year old Rick Jr. (newcomer Richie Merrit) who is a partner with his father, Rick Sr. (a scenery chewing Matthew McConaughey).  They buy guns cheap at local trade shows and then sell them for a high profit out of the truck of Rick Sr.'s car.  Rick Jr.'s home life is one of constant stresses, mostly because he was raised without a mother in the seedier parts of Detroit, but also because his sister, Dawn (Bel Powley), is a horrible drug addict that constantly butts heads with her well meaning father, which culminates in her running away from home.  Rick finds himself attracted to a crime life outside of home, seeing as he's already deeply entrenched and around the underground drug trafficking trade.  He eventually finds himself selling some of his dad's guns to kingpin Johnny (Jonathan Majors), who takes a special liking to the lad's guts and welcomes him into his organization.

Just as "White Boy Rick" starts to make a name for himself as a player with some street cred, two FBI agents swoop in (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) and force Rick to join their ranks as an undercover agent, selling drugs for them so they can expose the crooks - and some vile police officers - that are behind the crimes.  After some reluctance, Rick realizes that he has no choice (especially after it seems that the feds could easily jail him and his papa for gun crimes), so he acquiesces and eventually finds himself having some real power and influence on both sides.  After the feds have got all that they need from Rick, they essentially cast him aside, albeit as a free man.  As years pass and Rick finds it difficult to help his dad make an honest living and seeing his dream of opening up a video store through to successful fruition, both father and son mutually decide that Rick returning to drug dealing will help them make some fast cash, but not without life changing repercussions.

WHITE BOY RICK looks sensationally ugly and grimy throughout, and one of the finer things that Demange does is ground us at the epicenter of the drug riddled mean streets of early 80's Detroit, making it look more like an inhospitable and poverty stricken war zone/wasteland than a thriving and hopeful metropolis.  With immersively garish cinematography by Tat Radcliffe and rock solid production design (that, paradoxically and compellingly doesn't paint the Regan era in neon colored strokes), WHITE BOY RICK feels both of its time and an icy evocation of how some of America's ghettoized neighborhoods felt left behind when progress came through.  And considering how many gangster films are oftentimes shot through rose colored glasses that sensationalize their subjects,  I appreciate how scummy WHITE BOY RICK looked and felt. 

The uniformly strong and grounded performances also help lead the charge here beyond Demange's fluid direction, most apparently by McConaughey, who has a field day - as he has in past roles - of making deplorable scumbags oddly sympathetic and likeable.  Sporting a fabulously ugly mullet and a pot belly, the Oscar winning actor pulls off triple duty by making Rick Sr., an f-bomb uttering loser that also happens to be a vulnerable and considerate father and pathetic sad sack that can't get ahead in life.  He's paired very well by rookie Richie Merrit, making his feature film acting debut.  He has a very tricky assignment in making Rick Jr. both a stern poker faced crook that confidently can get the job done and a young man that's still driven by impulsive and youthful naiveté that simply doesn't know any better.  It's easy for critics to label his performance as one note and wooden, and even though there's some roughness behind Merritt's work here he nevertheless nicely modulates and underplays his part as an effective counterpoint to McConaughey's agreeable camera mugging.  His on screen naturalness is echoed by Powley as Rick's sister, who's perhaps one of the scuzziest siblings in recent movie history.  Her tour de force portrayal as a junkie without hopes and dreams is one of WHITE BOY RICK's most heart wrenching aspects. 

The one area that negatively overrides the assured direction and consummately rendered acting is the screenplay, which is a bit tone deaf when it comes to commenting on Rick Jr.'s criminal ways and what Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" war on drugs actually meant and/or entailed.  Writers Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller do great work of establishing the initial particulars of Rick Jr.'s home life and later life in crime, but their overall approach lacks subtlety in the sense that they appear to be propping him up on a pedestal of hero worship as someone that was wrongly screwed by the law.  I think this rings utterly false.  A much more layered and genuine approach to his story would have been to actively deal with how his seductive return to crimes after working with the FBI actually destroyed countless lives from the very drugs he was selling.  Instead, WHITE BOY RICK takes a strangely sympathetic stance that Rick was the biggest victim, which left a bad taste in my mouth.  He was, no doubt, done no favors by the agents that pledged to support and protect him to the best of their legal abilities, but when all was said and done he wasn't forced at gun point to return to criminal activity.  The ending of the film is drearily dark, but it wants us to see Rick's imprisonment as tragic because of a miscarriage of justice that puts blame on uncaring law enforcement.  In that respect, WHITE BOY RICK left me feeling hollow inside as I exited the cinema.

That's not to say this is a wasteful film, just a misguided one during its final 30 minutes or so.  I think that this type of small scale crime drama that spans multiple years could have been better handled with a longer running time (sometimes WHITE BOY RICK feels like it left too much on the cutting room floor), which could have resulted in a more thorough dissection of its multiple thematic undercurrents (there's also a lot that could have been said about incarcerating young delinquents like Rick for life after committing non violent crimes, but the film runs out of gas in the end to explore it).  To be clear, Richard Wershe Jr. deserved to go to jail for his crimes, but did he deserve to go to jail for the rest of his lfie?  It's a fascinating conundrum that WHITE BOY RICK isn't inclined to tackle, mostly because it wrongfully sees him as a victim.  Still, I find myself recommending the film despite it adhering to the formulas of other films about criminals rising and falling from grace, primarily because the direction and acting are top notch.  With a finer and more multi-layered script WHITE BOY RICK could have achieved upper echelon kingpin status as a gangster drama epic, but in its final form it's serviceably watchable.   

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