White Boy Rick
Starring Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie
The opening scenes of White Boy Rick, show a father and son hustling a gun dealer. French director Yann Demange (71) opens and closes with the film’s most important theme, although he strays in the middle where it loses focus. Newcomer Richie Merritt has a few scenes where you understand his plight and emotion, others he is struggles with the depth of the character. After mixed reviews out of the Telluride and Toronto, I had mostly written off White Boy Rick, but it’s Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey that almost saves the film, him and that ending.
Crime was sort of expected from Rick Wershe Jr. (Merritt), who everyone around the block called White Boy Rick. His father (McConaughey) has skirted illegal activity for years, selling registered legal guns to criminals in Detroit, but up selling them “fries” (aka hand made silencers). Rick went from his father’s drop off boy, to FBI’s youngest informant, to well connected drug dealer. By Age 16 in the year 1985, Rick was already a father and rolling in money he hoped would change their lives. If he did nothing else, Rick was determined to get his older sister Dawn (Powlye) off drugs, even against her will if necessary. Despite good intentions, when you play with fire enough, eventually you get burned, and that’s what landed Rick behind bars as a teenager, with a life sentence.
Demange needs to work on his visual style and appeal, there are so many missed opportunities here.
White Boy Rick has a lot of good intentions, combined with a committed performance by McConaughey, it almost turns into something substantial. The father son bond is the strongest takeaway. Its biggest detractor is how familiar everything feels. How Detroit is portrayed, the double cross from the FBI, the narrative is very standard as it moves from scene A to B. In the first half of the film it seems as if grumpy Grandpa Ray (Dern), is going to provide both comic relief and be one of the few model citizens in the film. He gets exactly three very short scenes (car, porch, courtroom), neither of which add depth or even a memory by the conclusion, which is a shame. Piper Laure as Grandma Verna gets even less. Why cast such talent and do nothing with them?
Another strength to the script is how (at least in this version of the story) we get a drug flick without our two-man characters actually partaking in the substance. The script keeps the Wershe men honest and loyal, and that’s admirable. However, Rick was a drug dealer, that’s not in dispute, and the film has a difficult time trying to figure out how to make you still care for him. The ending might take you by surprise, if you don’t know the history, it’s a big dose of reality that makes the story worth telling. Thankfully White Boy Rick never glorifies what these men do, it stops just shy of condemning their actions. Yann Demange needs to work on his visual style and appeal, there are so many missed opportunities here (i.e. the Skate and Roll) that could have elevated the material to greater heights.
Another formulaic drug story that suffers most from a lack in visual originality.