AT THE MOVIES
The Disappointments Pile Up in “White Boy Rick”
By Noah Gittell
Is Matthew McConaughey in need of another McConaissance already? After his redeeming run of indie hits that included “Mud,” “Magic Mike,” and the Oscar-winning “Dallas Buyers Club,” the eccentric leading man has now gone several years without a film that really connects with audiences. The streak is likely to continue with “White Boy Rick,” a dismal drama that flirts with several promising genres without ever figuring out what story it wants to tell.
It also pulls off an unforgivable bait-and-switch from which it never really recovers. The advance marketing for the film suggests McConaughey is the star, but you quickly realize he actually plays a supporting role: the father of the main character, Rick Wershe Jr., a high school dropout in mid-‘80s Detroit. Rick Jr. spends his days helping his father sell guns out of their basement. Early on, we see how their quasi-legal business works: The father and son attend a gun show, where they con a Vietnam veteran into giving away a few choices pieces practically for free. At home, they sell the guns to any customer who comes knocking on their door, from scared housewives to inner-city gangs. Just to make sure we have sympathy for their plight, Rick Sr. often reminds us of his dream of owning a video store, and that guns are just a means to an end.
Guns are everywhere in “White Boy Rick,” but the film has shockingly little to say about gun culture. The plot kicks into gear when a pair of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) recruit him to infiltrate a local gang, and, with no future to look forward to in either legitimate business or crime, he has no reason to resist. He sells a couple of guns to a local gang, who anoint him with his moniker. They become a surrogate family to him, although there are few hints that they care enough to protect him when it matters.
Meanwhile, the FBI leans on Rick to expand his work for them. First, they ask him to buy drugs, so that they can scout the location of local dealers. Next, they encourage him to sell the same drugs, arguing that it will look suspicious if someone is buying in his quantities and not selling. These skills will prove handy a few years later, when Rick convinces his dad to shift their basement business from guns to smack. “I know the players, and I know the same,” he argues. His father has reservations: “Guns are a first amendment right,” he opines. “There’s no right to drugs.” With few other career options, they move forward with young Rick’s plans.
It’s an intriguing plot based on a true story, but the artistry both behind and in front of the camera brings it down. First-time actor Richie Merritt Jr. gives an admirably natural performance as the titular character, but he’s never effective enough in communicating his inner life to the audience. His blank stare will look familiar to real-life parents of teenage boys, but they may find it just as frustrating. It’s especially problematic when acting across from McConaughey, who is compelling as ever as the jittery criminal earnestly trying to raise two children despite his severe limitations. Again, proper expectations may have helped here. If we had known McConaughey was playing a supporting character, we might not have been constantly itching to see his face back onscreen.
Director Yann Demange films 1980s Detroit with an appropriate grimness; only on a gang-sponsored trip to Las Vegas does he ever try to convince us that Rick’s life is glamorous. He also displays an innate understanding of the rhythms of violence. Much as in his last effort, the far superior Northern Ireland war film “71”, the violence in “White Boy Rick” is always a surprise. He doesn’t trade in high-wire tension or long stand-offs. Death comes quickly and when you least expect it, which gives the film a sense of reality and immediacy that most crime movies lack.
But what this film lacks is a real understanding of what it’s about. Watching “White Boy Rick” you may find yourself searching its compelling images for meaning. Its lack of a point of view about guns is a fatal flaw, particularly in our era. The father-son relationship is perilously undercooked. Perhaps most problematically, it’s a film about racial injustice and incarceration that filters these issues through the experiences of a white boy, even though he is surrounded by people of color. At least we can’t blame this one on McConaughey.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether