White Boy Rick is at first a familiar true crime story about the mid-1980s drug trade in Detroit, but then it takes a surprise turn in its final moments toward prison reform commentary more befitting Making a Murderer. It’s an odd fit, one which asks the audience if the punishment fits the crime but does nothing to explain the motivations of the jailors and explore the intricacies of the case history. If you care enough about the story, you’ll end up looking up the far more informative documentary of the same name or a summary article on a site like HistoryVsHollywood.com; if not, well, you’ll probably at least enjoy Matthew McConaughey’s moving performance as a flawed father heartbreakingly aware of/utterly incapable of stopping the deterioration of his family.
Or, for those who just want to revel in 80s opulence, there are four different scenes set in a neon-colored roller skating rink and plenty of period-specific costumes and R&B. So, that’s always fun.
The story starts in 1984 as Rick Wershe Sr. (an Oscar-caliber McConaughey) and his 14-year-old son Rick Jr. (impressive newcomer Richie Merritt) attend a gun show and hustle their way into acquiring a collection of knockoff AK-47s and revolvers. Rick Sr., turns out, is an arms dealer, peddling guns out of his trunk, basement or wherever in the grand hopes of eventually making enough money to start his own chain of video stores. Why, his son asks in the first of many times throughout the movie, does he stay in crack-addled Detroit? Because it’s his home, and “the lion don’t leave the Serengeti.”
Rick Jr., who is already a high school dropout at this point, turns into a bagman for his dad and brokers an arms deal with the local drug kingpin (played by Jonathan Majors). In the process, he befriends the kingpin’s nephew Boo (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s RJ Cyler) and gradually falls into their social circle. Hanging out at the skating rink, shooting rats under highway overpasses in dilapidated Detroit – ya know, the usual. Of course, he sticks out like a sore thumb as the only white guy in the group, thus the nickname “White Boy Rick.”
In fact, Rick sticks out so much the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, playing fictional composite characters) and local narcotics cops (Brian Tyree Henry, playing a version of the real Detroit cop-turned-Beverly Hills Cop actor Gil Hill) keep tabs on him before eventually recruiting him to be an informant. He either helps them out or stands by to let them arrest his dad for black market arms dealing. It’s an obvious choice for Rick to make, and eventually, he’s forced to not just inform but also help smoke some people out by becoming a drug dealer himself.
Even though he’s only 14.
And it’s technically illegal to use a child as an informant, a fact the film never addresses, simply leaving it up to us to realize this doesn’t seem right.
What follows is, in rather broad terms, a predictable trajectory of accrued riches, related vices, and eventual downfall. The 80s true crime genre is, after all, not exactly lacking for cinematic representation. We recognize the tropes from pretty damn far away. Heck, we play most of them out on Grand Theft Auto now.
However, in director Yann Demange’s hands White Boy Rick is far more humanistic and smaller scale in its leanings. Rick does eventually rise so high he drives around in a BMW baring the license plate “Snowman,” but he still lives in Deadsville, Detroit and is by no means a kingpin. Plus, he has an ineffectual dad, drug-addicted sister (played by Bel Powley and her wonderfully expressive eyes), increasingly senile grandpa (Bruce Dern), and – spoiler – a surprise daughter of his own to support. The goal of the film, then, is not to glamorize or endorse Rick’s actions, but to understand them and the dying, corrupt town and rules-skirting FBI agents who left him thinking he had no other options.
As a result, some of the finer details of the story and the FBI’s grand sting operation end up lost in translation. Plus, the racial politics of asking us to sympathize with a white kid responsible for putting away a lot of black guys who were just as much products of the system as him is undoubtedly questionable. Still, I was moved enough by McConaughey’s performance, Merritt’s gradually decaying stoicism, and occasional bursts of comedy – like two black kids looking stone-faced up at a drive-in screen showing Kevin Bacon and Chris Penn dancing in Footloose – to follow along and not regret the experience.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- The trailer is up there with A Star is Born as one of the best I’ve seen all year. Also, those quick shots of ladies on a yacht and McConaughey yukking it up on a private airplane aren’t in the finished film.
- I don’t know when they filmed this or if they actually filmed in Detroit. Whenever and wherever it was, it looks wet, cold, and as depressingly dead as any town could.
What about you? Have you seen White Boy Rick? Still on the fence? Sick to death of 80s true crime/excess stories by now? Or do you just want to be the first to make a McConaughey “alright, alright, alright” joke? Well, tough. I just did. But maybe you have a better one. Let me know in the comments.