WHITE BOY RICK
R, 110 mins.
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.
"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.
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.