Detroit. 1984. Industry has dried up. Police and government corruption is a widespread cancer. The city is eating itself alive. Matthew McCoughanhey’s mulleted Rick Sr. laments the rapid decline into gang activity, violence, and drugs. When his son, the eponymous White Boy Rick, asks why they don’t just pick up and haul off, McCoughanhey waxes through a redneck stache, “The lion doesn’t leave the Serengeti.” But not even Toto would bless this foul land.
As a Detroit lion, Rick Sr. and 15-year old White Boy Rick move off-market firearms, flipping gun show weapons to gangsters at a higher margin, manufacturing homemade silencers in their basement to complete the set. All under the ever-watchful eye of the FBI. Their household is a white trash paradise complete with a strung out daughter (Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley) and wife-beater-wearing grandpa (Oscar-nominated Bruce Dern). Dysfunction defines relationships between the Wershe family so it’s no surprise that when Rick Sr. is snagged by the Feds, young Rick slides into action as an FBI informant and small-time crack dealer to get his pops off the hook. The biographical drama from ’71 director Yann Demange fails to do justice to its fascinating true story. We see all the pieces come into place but this is storytelling as hacky fact reporting, a haphazardly stitched together biography that hits all the highlights of Rick’s woebegone saga without actually giving it dramatic texture or an arresting narrative. The script from Andy Weiss (Punk’d) and Logan and Noah Miller (Touching Home) misses the forest for the trees, dosing in some fine dialogue but lacking an almost total knack for storytelling prowess. Things just don’t connect or click into place. Moments that should climax instead fizzle. Highlights and plateaus feel indistinguishable.
White Boy Rick bumbles from year to year, lacking energy and dynamics. Weiss and Millers’ script is a prime example of telling and not showing as we’re repeatedly told of White Boy Rick’s ascension within the criminal underworld but are never actually privy to any change in either his possessions, lifestyle, or personality. He has a few more gold chains as the years go on and a smidge more confidence with the ladies but this is a stagnant character through and through. Without the rollercoaster journey of a criminal come-up or any real emotional attachment to any of the characters who aren’t front and center, White Boy Rick feels like a lot of misplaced bluster, a valley of flat peaks.
French director Demange displayed a knack for unparalleled tension in war thriller ’71 and with White Boy Rick, that talent has drained like puss from a cyst. For the many horrors that fall onto Rick’s shoulders, the audience is always kept at a distance. Peering through feet of tinted glass. At arm’s length emotionally. Even major moments – bloody bar fights, vicious shootings, child murders – feel muted and distant. They are volcanic eruptions with insufficient fallout. The illusion of depth poured liberally and freely.
More troubling is the screenplay’s treatment of its African-American characters, none of which are given any degree of personality beyond “thug” or “hoe”. Sure, there’s the loyal thug and the smart hoe and plenty of gaudy furs to dress them in but White Boy Rick cares so little about the fate of these characters that it’s almost insulting that any screen time is invested in them at all. Taylour Paige’s Cathy is the closest thing White Boy Rick has to a black character of substance but even she is treated with the storytelling equivalent of a slammed door, the bottom dropping out of her tale when White Boy Rick’s brush with her is suddenly truncated.
Newcomer Richie Merritt works as the titular anti-hero, adopting the native ebonics of Detroit and brandishing perhaps the gnarliest mexistache in movie history. That infected caterpillar is a true abomination so props to him for sporting it publically. McCounaughey yields another strong showing as Rick Sr., accounting for the film’s most stirring diatribes but even his character doesn’t grow or change in any ways worthy of note. Chalk that up to the movie’s struggle, at every opportunity, to shine a light on the inner lives of its characters. Rick’s brush with riches never appears to change him. Nor do his close encounters with death, his dealings with the FBI, or his spitting out a kid of his own. This isn’t a Walter White to Heisenberg situation. It’s a point A to point A journey. We’re left to pity Rick because the film itself pities him. In feeling sorry for its characters, White Boy Rick struggles to communicate motive beyond the simplest of survival instincts. And perhaps that’s all a lion needs to stay alive but a compelling movie character demands so much more.
CONCLUSION: ‘White Boy Rick’ tells a fascinating true story in underwhelming fashion, touting strong performances and compelling dialogue but lacking any significant depth or emotional involvement.