WHITE BOY RICK Review: A Life and Film Left Adrift
If White Boy Rick weren’t inspired by the true events of the young life of Richard Wershe Jr., one might roll their eyes at the obviousness of setting the film in Detroit. Since the notorious decline of the once mighty Motor City, it has been the go-to symbol for capitalistic ruin and societal decay on screen. And in the beginning, it seems the perfect fit for the story of the Wershes, an enterprising combo of father and son trying their best to make it in their hometown. “The lion don’t leave the Serengeti” Rick’s father grins at him when he asks why they don’t pack their bags and head for greener pastures.
Rick’s father (a typically charismatic Matthew McConaughey) sells guns out of the trunk of his car to both gangsters and fearful middle aged ladies. Supposedly a licensed dealer, his illegal manufacturing of silencers - the fries to the guns’ burgers, as he says it - puts him on the map with the Feds. It’s this environment that Rick (newcomer Richie Merritt) begins selling his father’s guns himself, getting him in with a connected crew of gangsters and drug dealers. His dad didn’t ask him to do this, but instead he himself makes the decision to waltz into the gang’s lair himself with all the confidence and swagger he can muster. The leader of the crew christens him his titular moniker - “White Boy Rick.”
The first thirty minutes or so lays much groundwork for rich thematic material to mine for drama. Following McConaughey’s Serengeti speech, a sequence finding him kicking his junkie daughter’s drug connection out of the house at gunpoint underscores a committal to not just his sense of capitalistic ambition but to an idealistic American family situation - that fruitless exclamation of “We’re goin’ for custard!” inspires pitiful laughter. But this is quickly dropped as the narrative moves on to the next illicit racket for Ricky and his father to get involved in.
Also dropped where it would seem obvious to dive into is the assumed racial component implied by the very title of the film. As Rick gets involved with the local gangs, and eventually is pressured into informing on them for the FBI, the film finds Rick increasingly the lone white guy in majority black spaces. This is never commented or remarked upon, save for the initial nickname given him. A brief speech among the crew brings up the prospect of going to jail for anything they’re doing, highlighting the difference between “White Time” and “Black Time” for Rick. Later, once the feds finally get enough evidence to move in on the gang’s operation, they inevitably make the decision to sweep Rick and his father’s crimes under the rug to focus on prosecuting the gang members, in effect dismissing the white criminals in order to more effectively punish the black ones. It’s all lip service or glossed-over subtext. One may wonder whether or not it would be better if it were given more attention by the writers and French filmmaker Yann Demange; it may be a catch-22 situation, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Brian Tyree Henry
Andy Weiss and
Logan & Noah Miller
Without any serious thematic through line aside from just the disparate events of Rick’s life, the film seems content to drift aimlessly from one such event to another. The transitions rarely have a sense of a cause-and-effect relationship, moving along with an “and then this happened…” instead. Biopics often get flack for overly dramatizing their stories or playing up certain aspects over others the manufacture a sense of a three act structure, but a film like White Boy Rick shows why that usually happens; the result otherwise could turn out rudderless without a clear vision in place.
Demange shoots the mid-80s with a fluorescent haze that gives the film a textured, washed-out look, and even adds brilliant neon to the palette in night-time party scenes. The gritty, immersive realism he brought to 2014’s ‘71 strikes a perfect fit for the rundown, decrepit Detroit neighborhoods his characters inhabit. He gets great performances out of his actors as well. McConaughey does this kind of charming work in his sleep, effortlessly stealing most scenes, but Richie Merritt, debuting in his first screen role, makes the biggest impression as the titular Rick. He embodies a learned confidence and swagger beyond his years as he makes his way into the criminal underworld, but there’s always just enough of a touch that reminds us that he’s still a kid, whether it be the wisp of a moustache growing on his lip or the way he plays with a paper straw wrapper by dropping cola on it, watching it expand. Bel Powley may have, for some reason, chosen an accent that crosses a Boston intonation with that of a cat in heat, but her wide eyes and slack, hopeless face make the emotion of all of her performances ring completely true.
Speaking of which, how do three family members who all grew up under the same roof in the same neighborhood in Detroit all end up with wildly different accents? I’d posit that whatever dialect coach was on set should never work again if I believed there actually was one.
White Boy Rick is currently playing in theaters everywhere.