White Boy Rick has a heart in the right place, and Yann Demange can muster a few sparks of energy but that could just be that killer 80’s soundtrack. It’s a fascinating true story, and a sad story at that, halfway undone by unintentional cliches, disengaging structure, and the filmmaker’s tendency towards misery porn.
Matthew McConaughey and newcomer Richie Merritt are excellent as the downtrodden father-son duo of ghetto Detroit, father a lazy but licensed gun salesman and son a high school dropout and well-meaning ne’er-do-well who simply wants to better their lives, to get out of the snowy gutter, even if it means selling drugs. FBI spooks and local narcs nab little Rick for minor undercover ops and their plot to bring down the big guns leads to a plot of major fuckery in our American punitive system. White Boy Rick isn’t the story of a big-time gangster, or a “legend” as the trailers make it out to be, it’s the story of a fifteen year-old Detroit hustler trying to make an extra buck who gets screwed over by law enforcement when it comes time to hold up their end of a lengthy bargain. It’s a poignant reminder in a time when cops can get by with murdering a man in his own home for no reason. Bel Powley and Bruce Dern light up the room as Rick’s crack addict sister and surly grandfather, respectively, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane are typically believable as the aforementioned spooks. It’s also nice to see one-time Blue Ranger RJ Cyler stretching his legs and a sleazy Eddie Marsan getting work ten years on from Happy-Go-Lucky. Greasy mullets, greasier drug dens, and a dilapidated city, not to mention chintzy roller-skate night clubs, create a firm sense of place, something often taken for granted these days. However, French up-and-comer Demange can’t elevate these criminal theatrics beyond the blanket statement of “punitive system bad,” and even that itself is a third-act Hail Mary of theme on the heels of a rags-to-little-riches narrative.
Awful reminders of our schizophrenic justice system notwithstanding, White Boy Rick relies heavily on McConaissance leftovers and a lively cast to make this admittedly interesting true story more than the sum of its parts. Here’s hoping Demange will bring more to the casino table if he manages that new Bond gig.