White Boy Rick review: A misguided attempt at a familiar story

WHITE BOY RICK -- Photo Credit: Scott Garfield -- Acquired via EPK.TV
WHITE BOY RICK -- Photo Credit: Scott Garfield -- Acquired via EPK.TV /

The new film White Boy Rick brings another dynamic performance from Matthew McConaughey, but wants the audience to feel guilty for an unsympathetic story.

When it comes to movies in the crime drama genre, it seems that there are 2 types of narratives. The first usually involves a character that rises up and takes over the empire before taking a huge fall, i.e. Scarface. The other one usually involves a tale in the same regard but has a tragic element behind the character’s choices. For example, Johnny Depp’s tragic story about a cocaine drug lord in Blow. 

The one aspect that typically makes these films work is the understanding that the tragedy was the actual choices these characters made, not the consequences. Yes, the consequences are also sad but it’s usually clear that what these people are doing is terrible and unsympathetic. White Boy Rick tells the unfortunate story of how one kid’s choices put him jail for an excessive amount of time. The problem is the character is fully aware of the consequences and makes the choices anyway– then the film demands you to feel bad for him.

The film tells the story of  Richard Wershe Jr (Richie Merritt). who became the youngest FBI informant at this time period. His father Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) sells guns to local criminals as a means to make extra money. Rick makes a name for himself with the locals by taking the initiative and selling weapons to local Detroit drug dealers. This eventually becomes a gateway for Rick to also help sell drugs alongside them.

But much like most of these stories this decision never ends on a glamorous note. Eventually, the FBI and narcotics officers force the young kid to work for them by giving him an uncomfortable choice– be an informant or arrest his father. Naturally, he chooses to protect his father.

WHITE BOY RICK — Photo Credit: Scott Garfield — Acquired via EPK.TV
WHITE BOY RICK — Photo Credit: Scott Garfield — Acquired via EPK.TV /

The first half of White Boy Rick is actually quite good. The details of recreating a 1980s Detroit feel incredibly realized. The technology and the actual small touches of detail really place the viewer in the decade. Matthew McConaughey’s character owns a television set that will make you incredibly grateful for flat screen television. Most period films involving the 80s neglect some of the finer touches that this production appreciates.

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It’s also a very smooth flowing film that never feels like it’s wasting a second to keep moving. It says a lot about the editing considering this is a story that should be more boring than it is.

The energy is also lifted by some incredible performances by McConaughey and Merritt. Their father and son dynamic are earned effortlessly.

McConaughey especially brings a fantastic performance making Richard Wershe Sr feel like a pathetic man trying to do right by his family. Undoubtedly the real MVP here though is Richie Merritt who makes his breakout with this movie. This is probably the beginning of a huge star in the making.

WHITE BOY RICK — Photo Credit: Scott Garfield — Acquired via EPK.TV
WHITE BOY RICK — Photo Credit: Scott Garfield — Acquired via EPK.TV /

The unfortunate factor is that most of this great work is bogged down by a questionable direction in the writing. Warning spoilers ahead: Early in the film consequences are made clear to the main character about the punishments of the crimes he is involved in if he is not careful. One character literally spells out the extremes of the law, indicating how most black men get charges for selling drugs that might as well be attempted murder charges. Later on our boy Rick literally has broken free from the world of criminality, only to jump back in knowing the possible outcome of his decision.

The film then asks the audience to feel bad for him because of his extreme sentence. This is not to say that the legal ramifications are justified. The fact that a non-violent crime can cost someone 30 years of their life is absolutely ludicrous. It’s just hard to have sympathy for a character who knowingly committed the crime and knew that was a possible outcome of his poor decisions. It’s possible he was not told this in real life but in the film, he is actively warned. Spoilers end.

Then there is the fact that we have seen this “true story” numerous times. The rising underdog kid/adult who becomes king of some criminal affiliation. Resulting in getting too much money or power and then paying the ultimate price. This being said, White Boy Rick is on the higher end of the spectrum and worth checking out if this familiar archetype is something you enjoy

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Overall Thoughts

While not a bad film, White Boy Rick suffers from having an unsympathetic protagonist as well as a fresh story. It’s a well acted, well-paced story we have seen a thousand times before. Fans of the criminal underdog archetype might find much to enjoy here. That said, for the rest of us, outside of the stellar performances, White Boy Rick fails to add anything fresh to the conversation.

White Boy Rick is now in theaters.