By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –
In the 1980s, during the crack epidemic in Michigan, Rick Wershe (Matthew McConaughey) sells guns out of his house in the poverty-ridden suburbs to make ends meet. His 14-year-old son, Rick Wershe Jr (Richie Merritt), is close with his father and enjoys helping him out purchasing guns at shows and reselling them. Rick’s father is also an FBI informant, identifying prominent criminals in exchange for the FBI to turn a blind eye to his dealings.
Before long, the FBI has coerced Rick Jr into agreeing to sell drugs in the community to help them escalate their investigation and take down the real kingpins in the area. The investigators allow Rick to keep the money as long as he continues to report to them. Wershe Sr rejects the idea, given that his daughter Dawn (Bel Powley) herself is addicted to drugs, but accepts the fact that this could be their ticket out of poverty. What follows is a story that’s way too crazy for a two hour movie.
The heart and soul of White Boy Rick is Rick himself and his relationship with his father. As a story of fucking up being an inherited trait, it tells how the elder Wershe and his illegal methods of supporting his family are passed onto his son. His failures as a guiding figure result in his two children losing their way in their own lives. It paints an unbreakable generational cycle that is both tragic and compelling.
Richie Merritt, in his feature debut, is solid as the young Wershe. His performance is grounded and believable, and Merritt doesn’t really add too many frills to his character. That makes Wershe feel surprisingly genuine and compelling. Likewise Matthew McConaughey as his father is absolutely terrific. McConaughey also doesn’t try to blow the doors off with his performance, but it’s grounded and surprisingly emotional. At least a couple of scenes where Wershe Sr. shows how much he actually cares as a father are genuinely heavy and border on tearjerking.
Aesthetic and music give a strong sense of time and place to the Wershes’ story. Director Yann Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe film 80’s Michigan’s cold winter so well the temperature practically leaks out of the screen. Composer Max Richter really infuses the movie with the right feel.
Beers Two & Three
The story of Richard Wershe Jr. is a huge one. From Wershe Sr.’s weapon deals, Dawn’s drug addiction, the crack epidemic of the area, father and son’s interaction with the FBI, and the workings of the gang Rick associates with, there’s a lot going on. White Boy Rick is just under two hours, which means that something is not going to make it into the story. As it turns out, the movie is uncomfortably rushed, particularly in the last 45 minutes. There are character moments, environmental texture, and cultural commentary that feel bigger than a single feature. One of the most interesting scenes comes later in the film, where an African American leader of the drug empire in the area explains the difference of race and the prison system in America—“regular time” versus “black time” in prison. This sobering reminder of racial inequality in the country isn’t explored much beyond that.
Most of the story revolves around Rick as a character and the relationship he has with his father. This is a great dynamic and indisputably the best element of the movie. The earliest scenes of Wershe Sr engaging with his son both as a child and as a burgeoning professional partner are excellent in establishing their relationship. They really make the characters interesting in spite of how most films of this type would want to paint them as grimy criminals.
But the movie also wants to tell the rise and fall of Rick as a drug dealer and how the justice system completely screwed him over. There’s a disappointing lack of focus in the script’s second half, where the story really starts to pick up and in trying to cover as much of the story as possible, nearly everything gets shortchanged. The focus is certainly on the Wershe boys and their dynamic, but this story feels a lot bigger than what we’re shown here. That broader scope almost feels like a reluctant afterthought than a story element that works with everything else, and it makes it a bit harder to buy Wershe Jr’s activities as a dealer later in the film. Most of that just isn’t shown, apart from some quick shots of drug manufacture and sale out of the grandparents’ house, and it really feels like parts of the story are missing.
Strong style and stronger performances really command attention in White Boy Rick, even when the occasionally misguided storytelling doesn’t embrace the full scope of the events. The movie feels disappointingly subdued and narrowly focused leaving behind too much plot. There’s scarcely room in the second half for the movie to breathe, and there’s a distinct feeling that this should have been a miniseries instead of a movie. At the very least, it could have used another 20 minutes or so of runtime to flesh out the extent of Rick’s dealings. The movie’s clear interest in its characters and their relationships would have woven more comfortably with the narrative, as well. White Boy Rick is moderately satisfying on its own, and is never boring, but this could have been a real banger of a crime film if pacing and attention were better focused.
White Boy Rick (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Dawn is mentioned
Do a Shot: for every underdeveloped side character
Take a Drink: every time the justice system is shown to be flawed
Take a Drink: whenever someone sells drugs or guns