White Boy Rick

2019-03-09 11:42
Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt in a scene


The true story of a teenager who worked as a mole for the FBI in one of Detroits leading drug-dealing gangs and, after being cut loose by the same agents after an event that nearly cost him his life, he becomes a major drug dealer himself.


The story on which White Boy Rick is based is fairly extraordinary and its payoff is a poignant criticism of the American justice system, so why is the film itself just so underwhelming?

It’s certainly not the excellent cast that includes the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Powley or newcomer Richie Meritt who plays our anti-hero, the White Boy Rick of the title, in a manner that highlight just how incredible it is that a kid like this could possibly be an FBI informant, let alone a major crime kingpin. It’s also a film directed with, if nothing else, competence by Yann Demange, who actually does a solid job of capturing the griminess of the world and era (Detroit and the 1980s, respectively) in which our characters live.

The problem, ultimately, is that the film may certainly have its moments (especially in its final act where you kind of wish the film had spent most of its time) but for such an extraordinary story, it’s a decidedly ordinary piece of filmmaking.

Interestingly, the film is actually at its best when it ignores the actual crime plot and instead focuses on the relationship between White Boy Rick (or Rick Wershe Jr. to give him his proper name), his gun-dealing father, Rick Sr. (McConaughey in now typically fine form) and his junkie sister, Dawn (Bel Powley, again excellent). It’s solid family drama built around a particularly dysfunctional family that is keenly observed and well portrayed by all involved.

Sadly, and there’s no getting around this, the actual plot here is a total snooze. Yes, the one about the teenage FBI informant and drug dealer. I suppose there are hints of interest in the way our hero is a white kid who acts like he belongs to the black community around him but who, because of the colour of his skin, is far less likely than his neighbours to have his life ruined by a justice system that picks and chooses how it punishes people of different races for the same crime – not to mention the irony of how it all plays out – but most of the plot-heavy parts of the film adds up to little more than a badly paced, utterly unexciting and entirely uninteresting collection of crime movie clichés.  

More’s the pity because the final act of the film is genuinely compelling as it finally shifts out of autopilot and becomes a much more scathing and hopeless look at the injustices of a justice system tainted by the so-called War On Crime. Despite the fact that the publicity around the film, including almost all synopses of the plot, pretty much gives away everything that happens in the film from beginning to end, I’ll avoid going to heavily into spoilers here but suffice it to say that it is only when it leaves its boring crime-thriller bits behind and firmly embraces its character drama and its social commentary that the film finally starts to fulfil the potential of its premise.

If only it wasn’t a good ninety minutes too late.

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