White Boy Rick Review
Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) isn’t any great shakes as a dad. We know this because every now and again during White Boy Rick one of his kids tells him exactly that. “You’re the worst fucking father ever,” screams daughter Dawn (Bel Powley) during a heated confrontation right in the middle of the suburban Detroit street where the family lives. “Your daughter’s a junkie and I’m shitting into a bag,” son Rick Jr (Richie Merritt) informs him after getting shot in the stomach.
Such criticism could give a guy a complex but Richard Sr. – who sells guns out of the boot of his car for a living – carries on making the same mistakes while his kids’ lives implode around him. This chronic familial dysfunction sits at the heart of Yann Demange’s film and transforms what might otherwise have been a fairly pedestrian ’80s true-crime tale into something with rather more substance.
Demange’s follow-up to ’71 sees 14-year-old street hustler Rick Wershe Jr. targeted by FBI agents – played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane – and persuaded to help infiltrate local drugs gang, the Curry Crew, led by Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry (Jonathan Majors). However, Rick Jr. gets in too deep and ends up dealing himself, only to get arrested and hung out to dry by the Feds as courts get tough in President Ronald Reagan’s “Just Say No” America.
Although set in the ’80s – between ’84 and ’87 – Demange doesn’t constantly wave the time period in our faces like, say, American Hustle did, instead using myriad musical cues, particularly hip-hop (Run DMC, Afrika Bambaataa, Eric B & Rakim), to do most of the heavy lifting. The only real exception comes in 1985 when Rick Jr. travels with the Curry Crew to Las Vegas to see the famous Marvin Hagler versus Thomas Hearns fight. If nothing else, it provides one of the film’s funniest moments as Rick Jr. – now fancying himself a real high-roller – splashes out on a huge gold necklace with a chunky Star of David on the end. He only realises later, when his exasperated dad points it out, that it’s a symbol of Judaism.
Right from the title itself, there’s a racial component to White Boy Rick that is hard to ignore. Let's face it, making a film about the only white family in a much larger community of African-Americans is always going to be problematic, even in one based on a true story. Demange introduces us to a good many black characters – Lil Man, his wife Cathy, Rick Jr.’s love interest Brenda, and best friend Boo – but you never quite lose sight of the fact they are mainly there to move along the plot and have to play second fiddle to the Wershe family at all times. I’d like to have seen more scenes between Curry and Rick Jr., especially as their relationship takes on a putative father/son vibe. We even see Richard Sr. acting jealous of his son’s increasing closeness to the crew, but this isn’t really developed.
The strong cast Demange has assembled is both blessing and curse. Who wouldn’t want the likes of McConaughey, Leigh and Bruce Dern in their film? The problem is that there simply isn’t enough for a great many of these fine character actors to do in a movie that already comes in at nearly two hours in length. Eddie Marsan (as a drugs trafficker), Dern and Piper Laurie (as the Wershes’ grandparents), and Bryan Tyree Henry (as a narcotics cop) hardly get a look in. Leigh is given a slightly meatier role but not nearly enough for someone of her calibre and charisma. There are altogether far too many characters and, as a result, only a few of them get enough screen time.
Less is always more with McConaughey and so it proves in White Boy Rick. His last couple of roles – in Stephan Gaghan’s Gold and dead-on-arrival blockbuster The Dark Tower – have seen him chewing the scenery so hard I’m surprised they had any sets left after shooting wrapped. He’s much better here as part of an ensemble, turning in work that might not always be subtle but is certainly effective. He manages to balance Richard Sr’s shortcomings with an altogether more sympathetic side which sees him dreaming of owning a video store while throwing out philosophical bon mots (“A good idea is like a fine wine; it gets better with time”). There’s also a great moment when Wershe Jr. and Sr. creep into a crack house to rescue Dawn. McConaughey’s shocked expression when he sees the drug-addled state of his daughter – a rare moment of self-awareness from his feckless character – is quietly devastating.
A good deal of the advance publicity for the film has focussed on Baltimore teenager Merritt’s story – how he was discovered attending an open casting call at his high school. But he is more than just a novelty to get a few more column inches and acquits himself very well in the company of far more experienced actors. His Rick Jr. is a winning mix of bumfluff awkwardness and teen swagger, and I’d congratulate Demange for getting such an assured performance out of him – as he did Jack O’Connell in ’71 – but I suspect Merritt is merely playing a souped-up version of himself. He receives bravura back up from the brilliant but underrated Powley. The pair have a touching and believable bond as brother and sister, and you are made to feel every bit of Rick Jr.’s angst as Dawn slides hopelessly into addiction.
When I recently interviewed the director, he told me White Boy Rick “should have been a mini-series” and described it as being like “three films battling to be in one”, so I suspect, in his heart of hearts, he knows it has problems. True stories, with their stubborn refusal to fit neatly into a three-act structure, are notoriously tricky to adapt. As a result, Demange's film is at times sprawling, at times confusing, and you need a scorecard to keep up with its conveyor belt of characters. But as compromised visions go, it still has much to offer.