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Director: Yann Demange


Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie

Based on a true story, White Boy Rick is a journey through the downs and downs of Richard Wershe Jr’s (Merritt) adolescent years. In 1980’s Detroit, Wershe Jr. moved between a life as a gun peddler, becoming the youngest ever FBI informant (at just age fourteen) a drug dealer, and, later, forelorn inmate. A grubby life in a grubby town living with his gun-toting father, Richard (McConaughey), and addict sister Dawn (Powley) meant Richard – dubbed White Boy Rick by his underworld partners – seemingly had no chance of a decent youth or life.


This is all happy stuff, clearly.

Initiated into the (mainly) black crime world, Wershe Jr sells silenced AK-47’s to the young gang members – gaining his sales patter from his father – and later moves into the drug scene to survive – though he clearly flourishes in these environments. The narrative spans a few years, so there’s time for awkward hook-ups and a smattering of violence as well. It’s important to mention, however, that nothing here is glorified or sexed up for cinematic appeal – it starts gloomy and pretty much stays consistent - bar some rare lighter moments and, yes, laughs too.


In his debut performance, Merritt plays Wershe Jr. as a naïve chancer with haunted eyes and a clear lack of desire for a future. He’s not the most endearing of characters but Merritt has enough confidence to sell the role. McConaughey is excellent as the mulleted Richard Sr., full of greasy swagger and a bundle of fatherly affection behind the façade. It’s worth noting that Bel Powley is near-unrecognizable as the washed out drug addict daughter/sister – she is afforded one of the movies more affecting scenes as her father liberates her from a crack den. White Boy Rick is at its best during these familial scenes, though not many of them are particularly uplifting.


After a thirteen-year-old boy is gunned down in the crossfire of a gang shooting, Wershe Jr. is forced to work with the FBI to help clean up the problems within Detroit’s underbelly (Wershe Jr. was the seller of the lethal weapon). From there on, the movie begins to take shape – and go downhill, in terms of mood and tone – but it’s also the most interesting angle of the narrative. Through the scenes of shootings, colostomy bag cleansing, seduction and drug dens is a story of family – and all of its importance, delicateness, and struggles. That’s the movies real message alongside its portrayal of real events, which Demange adheres to fairly rigidly.


The main drawbacks here are the pacing and slightly imperfect editing. There are a few times throughout where everything seems to drag and plod and events are chopped together in a way that becomes jolting at times. At times, the experience began to feel as bleak as the on-screen happenings. McConaughey’s story felt like it needed to be expanded on more, mainly because it provided the majority of the movies depth and more vital moments.


White Boy Rick is a downbeat movie, but really it couldn’t have been depicted any other way. Some great performances keep things interesting because between the flashes of excellence lies something slightly more mundane.

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September 18th 2019

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