At the heart of White Boy Rick is a film about a family trying to achieve the American dream by alternative means. While the script depicts none of its characters as innocent, it does tend to victimize its title character and look the other way at the facts. The film is ultimately held together by a terrific supporting performance by Matthew McConaughey
The 1980’s wasn’t just a decade of glorious oversized women’s shoulder pads, big perms, and to put in kindly, bold men’s fashions (everything from parachute pants, puffy sleeves and odd sweater prints). There was also a rampant drug problem, and even greater political pressures to tackle the issue. Rookie Len Bias overdosed on cocaine before even hitting the court for the Boston Celtics, Fortune 500 companies for the first time began mandatory drug testing for their employees, and Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign peddled the slogan on every button, t-shirt, and coffee mug in the attempt to educate the public on their anti-drug campaign. Big business wasn’t just being made on the other side of the law, but so was the war on drugs, and the American public demanded results. Everything is a business, even local or federal agencies.
In 1980’s Detroit, crack cocaine was as common as a winter’s freshly fallen snow. The public eventually demanded a return on their tax dollars.
Richard Merrit Jr., also known as White Boy Rick (played by newcomer Richie Merritt), grew up in downtown Detroit and dropped out of high school by age 15. He helps his father (Matthew McConaughey) who is an illegal firearms dealer, selling to locals around Detroit (the Wershes aren’t wearing pricey suits and selling illegal firearms to terrorists in foreign countries for large sums of cash, they are wearing hand-me-downs, attending local gun shows and rummaging around landfills for parts). Soon Rick gets involved with a local cocaine drug kingpin and admits knowledge of the criminal underworld to the local FBI agents that come knocking on his father’s door (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane). He then becomes the youngest FBI informant in the history of the agency.
White Boy Rick is an authentically photographed film, as French-born and London-raised director Yann Demange uses Cleveland, Ohio as a replacement canvas for downtown Detroit. He effectively takes you to another time and place: A 1980’s snow-covered rust belt great lake economy where manufacturing jobs have long left, most of the residents have been out of legitimate work, and many are trying to achieve the American dream through alternative means.
The script by Amy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller does a fine job depicting characters who are not innocent, and no one gets away clean, but tends to victimize its title character. You could argue Rick was taken advantage of by men and women who were under intense pressure to produce results. At the same time, the counterpoint to that can be made is he knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t care about the damage he caused, which made him rich at the expense of ruining people’s lives (of course you can argue nicotine and alcohol companies do the same thing, but they have the money and resources to get a legal stamp of approval).
Even though only a supporting role, the film is held together by a terrific performance by Matthew McConaughey, playing a caring but inept father trying to keep his family afloat. He has the remarkable ability to be squirmy, cruddy and moving all at the same time. White Boy Rick may be flawed with its depiction of Rick’s innocence while looking the other way at the devastation of his crimes, but it’s an engaging, suspenseful, and sometimes darkly funny film about the politics within government agencies and their cutthroat tactics to achieve results.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.