The true story that inspired the grimy biopic White Boy Rick sounds like the kind of far-out crime fiction found in moldy paperbacks in abandoned bus stations. In the mid-1980s, Richard Wershe Jr. was a Detroit teen helping his dad with the family business, dealing guns legally and illegally. When the FBI caught wind of his dad’s crimes, they offered Richard—or White Boy Rick as he’s known on the streets—a deal. If he becomes an informant for them, his dad is safe. But to do so, he needs to start buying and dealing crack cocaine to bring down a powerful kingpin. Because who would believe a 15-year-old white kid is an FBI’s insider?
Directed by French helmer Yann Demange, White Boy Rick paints Detroit as a place of decay. In an opening sequence, Rick (Richie Merritt) and his dad Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) drive a rust-bitten car through an urban labyrinth of crumbling warehouses, boarded-up buildings, and an expanse of concrete lots cluttered with trash. You can practically smell the damp eeking out of the plywood covering smashed out windows and the vague but haunting scent of rot creeping from any one of a sprawl of vacant lots. This is a place of poverty and crime, where people scrape by for their families by any means necessary. So yeah, Rick and his dad sell AKs and homemade silencers to the local kingpin. But—the film seems to suggest—what else could they do?
There’s no real interest in exploring that question. Instead, the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller offers a litany of excuses through monologues and dramatic debates between father and son. Rick’s dad argues he’s only selling guns illegally until he’s got enough to open his own video rental store. Initially, Rick starts dealing drugs to save his dad from jail. Later, he uses being kicked out of high school as an excuse to return to dealing, even as he tries to get his hooked sister through detox.
Even as it’s clear that the choking poverty of Detroit encourages crime—along with the police force that puts drugs into the hands of a teenage tough—I struggled to surrender much empathy to White Boy Rick. Part of the problem is newcomer Merritt, who offers a performance that some might call stoic, but I’m calling as compelling as a damp sock. Whether Rick is being threatened by the cops, reveling with his friends, or meeting his daughter for the first time, Merritt gives a blank expression, though occasionally it’s flecked with ornamental tears. Rick is meant to be the anti-hero who hooks us on the story and begs our empathy in spite of his bad choices. But the only crime that interested me in White Boy Rick was McConaughey stealing this movie. And the filmmakers know it.
The trailer for White Boy Rick focuses on a family confrontation where Rick Sr. pulls a gun on his daughter Dawn’s boyfriend, chasing him into the street, where Dawn (Bel Powley) follows in her panties. Rick Sr. screams at her to get inside and get dressed so they can go for frozen custard, while his father (Bruce Dern) and mother (Piper Laurie) fuss with him about his parenting skills (or lack thereof). While Rick Sr. fights for some forced family harmony, Rick Jr. is practically mute for the scene, a bland bystander to the whirlwind that is his family. And Merrit is outshone in every scene. Powley, who drew notice with Diary of a Teenage Girl, hurls herself into the wrathful and broken Dawn with a savage ferocity and heart-breaking vulnerability. Dern and Laurie have brief appearances, yet bring fire. But this is McConaughey’s movie. In the end credits, it’s his name that comes up before the title card. In awards season, it’ll be him who’s pushed for acting honors. And in the movie, it’s close-ups of his pained face that lands White Boy Rick’s most dramatic scenes.
Discovering Dawn in a festering flophouse, Rick tries to urge her to come home. When his cajoling can’t nudge her from her fetid cot, dad storms in and scoops her up in his arms to carry her home. Incensed, Dawn flails like a girl possessed, her limbs lashing out wildly, her fingers clawing at his face. It’s like something out of a horror movie, the dark hall, the violence, the screaming. And then the camera cuts to McConaughey’s face, half-shielded by shadow yet alight with agony. In that moment, we see how Rick Sr. feels blisteringly to blame for his daughter’s pain and predicament. We witness him accept her anger, and yet resist her cries to be put down. Then—as if the movie remembers its title—White Boy Rick cuts back to its teen anti-hero, his expression blank, though contextually maybe bewildered.
The script gives McConaughey plenty of scenes to weave the story of a “lowlife” dad who hustled to do right by his kids, but failed. Rick Sr. is captivating as he rhapsodizes to his son about the glory of America, a “place where a man can hotwire his brain to his balls and make shit happen!” He speaks with verve and a stinging poetry. Once Dawn is clean, he describes their household bliss as “fragile,” and promises “she’s my watch to keep.” When Rick condemns his parenting by pointing out one kid’s a “junkie” and the other’s been gutshot, Rick Sr. quips, “I guess I’m a glass half-full kind of guy.” And through it all, there’s an undeniable charm, even though McConaughey is pot-bellied, with a greasy mustache and greasier mullet. It’s this charisma that urges you to understand his plight. But his son has none of this McConaughey-level charm (who does, really?). This is confusing storywise, considering how many are quick to be conned by him.
Merritt’s performance for me was a confounding obstacle to connecting to Rick or understanding his journey. But there’s something more unnerving about White Boy Rick, and that’s its problematic racial politics. Rick’s colleagues in crime are mostly black, hence his nickname. At one point, Rick is scolded that there’s a severe difference between “black and white jail time,” suggesting he’d get off light compared to his black cohorts. But the film has little to no interest in the circumstances that led the black characters to crime, and instead is quick to point out how violent they are in contrast to Rick. Using a bottle of champagne as a club, a black crime boss beats in the face of a rival because of a shady remark. A gang of black men shoot up a home (with the guns Rick sold them), targetting a deceitful black colleague but accidentally killing his young nephew. Rick carries a gun and fires it wildly at rats and fleeing cars. But hey—the film seems to say—he’s not that bad.
The film laments the lengthy prison sentence Rick received in real life, noting with apparent disdain that he has the longest sentence for non-violent crimes in Michigan’s history. It’s a whitewashing that willfully overlooks his complicity in the deaths even within the film. As the court declares him guilty, Rick’s grandfather screams at the jury foreman (a black woman), “You’re taking a life!” All this feels shockingly tone-deaf considering it is overwhelmingly black and Latinx offenders who face stiff sentences for drug offenses. The final act of White Boy Rick makes me wonder the film’s point. There are plenty of stories out there about impoverished, at-risk youth turning to crime and getting alarmingly long sentences. Why did the filmmakers feel the story of White Boy Rick was the one they wanted to tell?