When the first trailer for “White Boy Rick” surfaced, it looked like a thrilling mix of “Scarface” and “The Social Network.” This turned out to be misleading, but in a good way since it focuses on the personal drama behind the story. The result is something much stronger on a personal level than its drug-thriller subplot suggests.
Set in Detroit 1984, a 14-year-old Richard “Rick” Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) has no perspective in life. His mother left the family years ago, his deadbeat father (Matthew McConaughey) is a low-level crook and semi-legit arms-dealer, and his sister Dawn (Bel Powley) is addicted to crack, which is booming in the neighborhood.
When FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) interrogate Rick Sr., they realize that his son is well-connected on the streets. Not only do they use him as a proxy to buy the drugs to collect evidence but also they even end up supplying him with product to sell, so he can raise in the ranks of the local drug gang, while ignoring that a teenager is running around with a loaded gun in his pocket. But the drug dealers have their ears everywhere, and soon there’s word on the street that the police have a new informant, leaving Richie alone against everybody, and all he has left is his family.
French filmmaker Yann Demange debuted four years ago with the critically acclaimed drama “71,” where a British soldier is left behind enemy lines in Belfast during the IRA uprising and has to find a way out unharmed. Demange chose again the story of one man against an overpowering enemy, but now it’s the FBI and the criminal justice system out to destroy a kid’s life.
Being already involved in his father’s illegal weapon deals, Richie was surely far from innocent when the FBI approached him, but there is just no excuse for dragging a child into the world of dealing drugs. However, the focus of the movie is rather how Richie and his family deal with their desperate situation at home, while the rise and fall as a drug kingpin is mostly shown in quick montages.
This is where the film has problems in its story. Many things are merely told, but not shown, breaking the oldest rule in screenwriting. The viewer doesn’t know how exactly Richie ends up being a successful dealer with a fat gold chain around his neck despite being exposed as a police informant. Then again, we have seen it too many times in other movies, and it’s a much more interesting angle to focus on the drama within the family.
For that dramatic part you need excellent actors, and Matthew McConaughey delivers a spellbinding performance as someone living on the edge of society. After “True Detective” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” he is familiar with edgy characters, and here he puts so much heart into the role; you want to hate him for all his wrongdoing, but you also see the love he has for his children and that he wants to be a good man in a fruitless world, Bel Powley also shines as a drug addict on a downward spiral. She particularly hates her father, blaming him for the mother’s departure, and she masters some really intense scenes. Newcomer Rickie Merritt can’t keep up with these performances, his acting is a little bit bloodless, but he is still young and has plenty of time to turn his peach fuzz into a real mustache.
“White Boy Rick” will remind many of the 2015 film “Black Mass” where Johnny Depp portrayed the real-life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Both biographical crime dramas take place in a similar milieu and tell a true story about crooks, cops and informants, but where “Black Mass” has a better structure and look, “White Boy Rick” is much more touching and emotional.
The war on drugs probably causes just as many victims as the drugs themselves, and when the credits start rolling one has to wonder how much has changed. Underaged informants are not a thing of the past, and the war on terror seems to repeat many mistakes made during the drug epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s. Hopefully this movie helps expose such severe injustices, like the one that was served to Rick Wershe Jr.
Flawless production design, intense performances and well-written dialogue help to smooth out some inconsistencies in the storytelling, and unless you expect another rendition of “Scarface,” this drama is sad but satisfying to watch. “White Boy Rick” is definitely a story that needed to be told to a wider audience, and the filmmakers do a great job highlighting the desperation that draws so many young people toward drugs and dealing.
Overall rating: 8/10
White Boy Rick (2018)
Directed by Yann Demange
Produced by John Lesher, Julie Yorn, Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin
Screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, Noah Miller
With Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, RJ Cyler, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie
Music by Max Richter
Cinematography by Tat Radcliffe
Edited by Chris Wyatt
116 min, R-rated