Astonishing true story
There’s a “where are they now” at the end of “White Boy Rick”, an astonishing true story about a teenager in a rough part of Detroit in the 1980s who became an undercover FBI informant, that might have served the movie better had the audience been aware from the beginning.
This kid, Richard Wershe Jr, ended up being arrested and sentenced to life in prison for possessing eight kilograms of cocaine under a controversial Michigan drug policy, the so-called 650-lifer law. He was only 17 – a minor – and, until recently, was still behind bars. This isn’t the story that’s told in director Yann Demange’s film, but it is context that would have helped frame the whole endeavor and perhaps make us care a little more about Rick from the beginning.
As it is, this movie is all about how he ended up there. Rick, played by newcomer Richie Merritt, is the son of a smart and charismatic but down on his luck lower class dad/hustler, Richard Sr (Matthew McConaughey, sporting a big mustache and long, combed-back hair), who’s trying to advance their station in life by re-selling modified AK-47s to local drug lords in east Detroit. Rick’s mom left them, and his sister, Dawn (Bel Powley) is on the verge of becoming a full-blown junkie.
The film starts out in 1984 when Rick is 14, and shows how this soft-spoken boy with a tough guy demeanor gets so easily swept up in and seduced by the glamour of the drug scene, the parties, the access, the girls and, of course, the money. It’s right in the thick of the war on drugs and “Just Say No” proselytizing.
Two FBI agents (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) pay Richard Sr a visit one day, trying to get him to give some info about the people he sells guns to. He declines, but Rick Jr jumps in to tell them a little. And in no time at all, he’s a full on informant, playing a double game with some of the city’s most powerful dealers, like Lil’ Man (Jonathan Majors), and making money on his own.
There are some real fun scenes, especially at the beginning, as we are introduced to the Wershe family including grandma Verna (Piper Laurie) and grandpa Roman (Bruce Dern) next door. As in most Hollywood films about blue collar people, this family is loud and brash and a little unwashed, but lovable nonetheless (it’s not exactly a surprise that Darren Aronofsky is a producer. Aesthetically, “White Boy Rick” is a spiritual sister to “The Fighter”).
Demange gives a real sense of place and time in “White Boy Rick”, from the homes and the cars to the clubs and the glorious neon “Skate & Roll” sign outside one of their regular gathering spots. The snow even looks real (most of the time).
Merritt is an interesting find and as a first-time actor is solid enough, although I’m not entirely sure this novelty adds anything particularly special to the movie, especially when McConaughey is next to him giving a whole performance. McConaughey is so good and emotionally affecting as Richard Sr, in both vulnerable and tough moments, that it might even catch you off guard.
The film overstays its welcome, especially in the slow-going third act, and fails to really develop some of the essential characters outside of the Wershe family (although there is a really wonderful scene-stealing child actor who comes along late in the game who brings the movie back to life for a bit).
Overall, it is a bewildering story of the callousness of the adults who helped encourage Rick to get into this position (the betrayals will make your blood boil), and an indictment of how US laws can tend to hurt the most vulnerable classes. It also doesn’t take itself too deadly seriously, which is maybe the best thing to happen to this Scorsese-adjacent genre in a while.
Everybody in “White Boy Rick” seems to be running some kind of scam.
Even director Demange appears to be hustling here. On the strength of his blistering IRA thriller “’71”, he’s desperate to make the transition to Hollywood, who was equally excited to work with him, although it took no fewer than four years to deliver this gritty, true-crime story – one that, on paper at least, seems fairly well suited to his tense, street-level sensibility. Although Demange directs the heck out of it, “White Boy Rick” ultimately feels like a glorified TV movie, albeit with a better cast and a much hipper score.
The film depicts a terrible time in American history, when politicians, the press, and everyday citizens were convinced that drugs were at the root of violent crime. (Assault weapons certainly weren’t helping the problem, as illustrated by the opening scene, set at a gun show where Rick Sr fast-talks a deal on a pair of AK-47s.) Law enforcement was desperate to combat the problem, and to do so, the FBI crossed the line, recruiting 14-year-old Rick to become an informant – apparently, the youngest ever.
Scuzzy. That’s the word to describe the tetanus-infected look and feel Demange brings to 1984 Detroit. This was a year after Los Angeles instituted the D.A.R.E. program, and right at the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign – when crack cocaine was already a big problem in economically depressed Detroit, a place where teenagers hang out in abandoned buildings, whipping out pistols and blasting rats for fun. Surely, compared with this, playing secret agent must have been exciting – so why doesn’t the film set out to capture the cocky, chosen-one status Rick must have felt working for the authorities?
Who knows what the feds had in mind, but things did not go well for Rick, who would end up serving more than 30 years of a life sentence. Screenwriter Andy Weiss and brothers Logan and Noah Miller clearly see that as a scandal, blaming the government for betraying Wershe: They got him started as an undercover drug dealer, doing controlled buys (setups where the authorities ordered him to purchase drugs from suspected dealers in order to make a bust), before handing him a kilo of crack with orders to sell (for reasons that are never clear, and which later lead him into dealing on his own). But the writers leave out huge chunks of Wershe’s story, including that he was already fairly deep into criminal activity when the feds approached him about working for them, and they are inexplicably forgiving of the fact when Rick was arrested, the cops found a whopping eight kilos. (Agencies)
Earning his nickname as the lone white guy in an otherwise predominantly African-American social group, Rick was no innocent, which makes the movie’s insistence that the cops corrupted him feel disingenuous. Certainly, they had no business luring an adolescent into the dangerous realm of drug dealing, but there’s something inescapably phony about the way pretty much every detail plays out here.
The scene in which FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) pick up Rick walking the streets one night, leaning on narcotics detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry) to bad-cop him into buying some crack, feels clumsy and far too exposed compared with pretty much every other police-informant movie ever. After he reluctantly agrees, the movie never really makes clear what his duties are, which deprives the film of whatever suspense might normally accompany scenes in which a kid tries to pull off the grown-up job of cozying up to ruthless criminals.
Demange shows young Rick being welcomed into the trusted inner circle of the so-called Curry Crew – led by Leo “Big Man” Curry (rapper YG) and Johnny “Lil Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors), whose soon-to-be wife (Taylor Paige) he not-so-wisely covets. These guys have ties directly to the Detroit mayor, and the feds desperately want to bring down the entire corrupt system, which involves no shortage of dirty cops, but the movie never really makes clear how Rick is supposed to go about this. Instead, we get flashy scenes – like the one in which Johnny takes his posse to Vegas for a prizefight and winds up beating Leo so badly that … what? The movie routinely focuses its energy on surface style, failing to explain what Rick really wants at any given moment.
If anything, his father is the dreamer, a bad-example single parent labeled a “lowlife” by his own daughter (Bel Powley) for his constant scheming. In his agitated over-acting, McConaughey looks every bit as committed to this role as he must have been to his weight-shedding “Dallas Buyers Club” or weight-adding “Gold” performances, though his greasy look seems considerably tamer than that of the characters he played in “Killer Joe” or “True Detective”. The standout turn here is Merritt’s, projecting both the streetwise toughness that attracted the authorities and the kind of determination that, under different social circumstances, might have allowed for Rick to find a legitimate path to a better life. What ultimately happened to Wershe was a scandal, though it’s hard to get too worked up when the movie itself is such a jumble. (Agencies)
By Lindsey Bahr