White Boy Rick

Directed by Yenn Demange

Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richie Merritt

The Plot – Set in 1984 Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, the film is based on the moving true story of a blue-collar father (McConaughey) and his teenage son, Rick Wershe (Merritt), who became an undercover police informant and later a drug dealer, before he was abandoned by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.

Rated R for adult language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity

POSITIVES

– Articulate production value in its respective decade setting. Considering I searched far and wide for something in the film to stand out as illegitimate of its 80’s establishment, the film does a solid job of echoing the very fashion trends and automobiles that were prominent in the Ford city. The males don flashy leisure suits of all shapes and color, but it’s in the furry jackets with gang surroundings where we get perhaps our most vivid take on the defining decade. These were very much the members only jackets of their time, long before it was only acceptable for a woman to wear fur.

– Variation in soundtrack that authentically represents the changing of the guard. For the first half of the movie, we’re treated to several tracks of Motown favorites, but as the film persists it’s the overtaking of rhymes and rhythm that distinguishes the change of voice within the streets. What this does is audibly represent Detroit’s transformative period from doo-wop to hip-hop colorfully enough in a way that echoes the very increase of violence and tension that we’re treated to from our character engagements.

– Presence behind the lens. There’s much to credit in Tat Radcliffe’s impeccable cinematography that unintentionally brings to life the beauty of the slums, but it would be nothing without the inclusion of Andrew Amine’s daring movements that really brings us along into this world of drug and weapon trafficking. The long takes are very persistent, studying the ever-changing locations and situations long enough to get a vibe for its danger and elegance alike, and the revolving shots that surround our cast give off the impression of life constantly moving around them with little reluctance.

– Dedication to Rick Junior. It would certainly be easy for this movie to overlook the importance of this being the youth’s story, especially with the big A-list names that more than make-up the celebrated cast inside, but Demange’s desire to see this as Ricky’s coming of age story is one that I greatly commend the movie for, in that he is the line between law and family that influence his every move as the glue between both. Mconaughey gets top billing, but the film’s unshakeable faith in keeping the focus on his kin is a decision that isn’t always easy, but one that pays off in spades for the integrity of the title and the story that never feels distracted.

– Without the family element, all else would fail. Because of the continued desire of Ricky to put his family back together, the film takes on a much more sentimental direction than I was rightfully expecting, proving itself as so much more than just another infiltration or get-rich-quick film that are currently all the rage in the drama category. In particular, it’s the bittersweet finale of a gut-punching third act that proves how much the dramatic pull was earned throughout, so much so that your heart is engaged in seeing this family outrun the live-fast lifestyle and setting that constantly surrounds them.

– Strong performances all around. What a breakthrough for Merritt, who manages roughly 90% of this movie’s story on his own. As Rick Jr, Merritt leaves enough divide in naive adolescence and street-smart hustle to represent how fast this youth is forced to adapt and grow-up to the ever-changing neighborhood around him. On top of that, the casting director couldn’t have chosen a more identical actor to play the real life figure. McConaughey gives another gripping dedicated turn as this father of two, who is trying to change himself for the better during a time when his kids are changing for the worst. Matthew emotes so much love and torture for the way he looks at his blood, and you start to really understand how vulnerable a parent’s responsibility really is, especially when their voice only goes as a far as the door their children go out to enter the world. Bel Powley was also a scene-stealer as Rick’s daughter, who herself has her own personal demons that she’s running from. This girl commands attention every time she enters the screen, and my heart ached for the decisions she made that cost her so much time along the way.

– Seedy setting. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for films that are set in the Motor City, and thankfully ‘White Boy Rick’ doesn’t squander the opportunity at some layered atmosphere that fill in the blanks of the imagery that surround it. Rick’s Detroit stage in the 80’s is one that still feels optimistic enough in the lurid seduction of neon lights and post-disco skating rinks, but it’s in the arrival of a cold, despairing Winter where the air of optimism quickly fades to grey, giving way to a chillingly numbing dose of reality that the characters simply can’t run from.

NEGATIVES

– Treads, but never fully walks through the poignant debate of guns versus drugs, as well as the corruption of the American judicial system. On the former, there’s a brief scene in the film where the father and son discuss their mutual poisons being unleashed onto the community, and what the real difference is between either. Unfortunately, the scene quickly and unfortunately evolves into something of bigger physical magnitude, and we’re left without a conscience for a movie that so desperately needed one. As for the law itself, it never feels like a big enough presence on the screenplay, disappearing halfway through the movie for a long period of time.

– Feels like scenes are missing. Rick moves in with his grandpa immediately after doing something terribly wrong to him? The mentioning of dad’s roommate girlfriend, despite us never seeing or meeting her? The formation of Rick’s gang and how he even met them? These are just a couple of examples of scenes during the movie that came out of nowhere, and feel like they constantly did a disservice to editing that was otherwise on-point for holding down the consistency of storytelling. These examples give off the feeling that this 106 minute movie could easily have a two-and-a-half hour director’s cut lying around somewhere.

– Questionable time transformations. While I mentioned earlier that the music, wardrobe, and production are spot-on for their respective era, the lack of attention to physical character progression is something that deeply troubled me. This film goes through four years of story, and in that time father, son, daughter, nor anyone ever change hairstyles or facial growth, or really anything to articulately translate the many lapses in time. It’s this kind of thing that constantly takes me out of a story, and is the easiest thing to clear up in terms of continuity.

7/10

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