The final line of White Boy Rick comes from an on-form Matthew McConaughey, here playing the father of juvenile cocaine kingpin Richard ‘Rick’ Wershe Jr. Through a sheet of thick glass, he sobs: ‘we’re lions’ and stabs at the soul. Unfortunately, it’s a last minute roar in a film that is rarely more than competent.
Based on the real story of Wershe Jr.’s unlikely involvement with the FBI and later Barry Seal-esque descent into crime – but, allegedly, of no relation to the biography by Evan Hughes – the film comes from French-born Brit Yann Demange, whose unflinching ‘71 propelled both himself and actor Josh O’Connell to Hollywood in 2014. Screenwriters Andy Weiss, Logan and Noah Miller take their title from the nickname bestowed upon the fourteen-year-old Wershe in 1984 Detroit, where the film opens. An uneven pace follows the kid criminal’s rise and inevitable fall, proving too emotionally disengaged, and increasingly dependent on the absurdity of the story itself, to keep audiences hooked.
When we first meet Rick (blandly played by newcomer Richie Merritt), he‘s showing off his unnerving ability to accurately identify firearms at a dodgy gun market. This is a ‘white boy’ who can hustle a hustler. It’s an aptitude he’s picked up from his blue collar father, who bootlegs arms for a living but has ideations for a better life selling VHS movies in his own shop.
A much more interesting character than his son, Wershe Sr. strikes as the single-minded epitome of the American dream and bastion of masculine values: ‘America’s the only place where man can hot-wire his brains to his balls and make shit happen’. His mullet is greasy and morals dubious but justifiable on his own terms. Equally intriguing is Bel Powley’s drug-addled Dawn, frittering in and out of her brother’s life with little patience for their father. It’s a pity the pair are so subservient here, as it’s the performances of McConaughey and Powley that you’ll come away remembering.
If his plot never quite comes alive – two thirds slow, one oddly rushed – Demange does at least succeed in capturing the eighties zeitgeist and the contemporary state of crack epidemic Detroit both visually and thematically. Set two decades after Katherine Bigelow’s harder-hitting Detroit, White Boy Rick explores an epoch in which race relations are no less fractured. Under FBI cohesion, Rick infiltrates a local black family of drug dealers. It’s a neat parallel that sees the Curry’s set aside the Wershe trio in a familial study, although the savvy observation by the former that there is a difference between ‘black time’ and ‘white time’ seems less so in the wake of closing credits that suggest the opposite.
There’s enough here to warrant watching but don’t be surprised to find your interest cursory and memory short. Demange feels cloistered by Rick’s story in ways that were not the case for his first feature and the effect is detrimental to the overall experience. White Boy Rick lacks fire, coherency and a protagonist particularly worth following, never mind actively rooting for. It’s a pity, rather than a complete waste of time and talent.