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Review: Drugs, Guns and Poses in ‘White Boy Rick’

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

A fiction built on nonfiction, “White Boy Rick” traces the grim, grubby rise and predictable fall of Richard Wershe Jr. (the newcomer Richie Merritt), a Detroit drug dealer who was arrested in 1987 at 17. Rick Jr. earns his catchy nickname soon after he starts running with powerful black street gangsters who inexplicably welcome him into their fold, as if he were one of them. (The White Boy name might have been a media fantasy about the character’s putative exoticism, at least that’s what the real Mr. Wershe suggested to The Guardian in 2015. “They did it to glorify or glamorize,” he said, as if he were “an anomaly.”)

The story opens a few years before Rick Jr.’s arrest with the camera fluidly, portentously, racing after a child. The setting is a gun market where the 14-year-old Rick Jr. is getting into it with a dealer over some AK-47’s. Rick Jr. is just a kid, but he knows the difference between a real Kalashnikov and a knockoff, which his father, Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), explains to the startled dealer. By the time father and son are driving home, motoring past miles of abject Detroit streets as Rick Sr. plots their future, a plaintive world — of dreams, broken promises and the two-bit con — has promisingly come into view.

A grifter, Rick Sr. sells guns out of the trunk of his car and makes illegal silencers in the basement of the family’s rundown house. His wife is gone, his daughter (Bel Powley) is an addict, and his parents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) are watching his every misstep, an amusingly hectoring Greek chorus. With his wilted mustache and mullet, Rick Sr. looks like he’s already surrendered, but life has not yet snuffed out his can-do American hustle. He’s pushing ever-forward one angle at a time — pinning his hopes on opening a video store — and Mr. McConaughey makes him jumpingly alive, as well as the movie’s most interesting character.

In Rick Sr., you see the man he was simultaneously with his ruinous current self, a struggle that speaks to the larger battles outside his door. It’s too bad that “White Boy Rick” only gestures at such depths and instead embraces the familiar guns and criminal poses, limitations that the director, Yann Demange, never transcends. In “‘71,” Mr. Demange’s kinetic, very fine debut feature about a trapped British soldier racing through Northern Ireland, he rarely kept the camera still. Here, his attention seems as restless as his camera but it also feels less certain. He often seems to be trying to stir up interest or clarify the story’s murky point.

There is one in this movie, and it’s worthwhile. But it arrives in fragments, mainly in scenes of the law putting the hard squeeze on Rick Jr. and in closing explanatory text about his fate, material that would have served the movie better if it had been dramatized. Working from a script by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller, Mr. Demange keeps moving as the complications pile up, the law agents circle the block again and Rick Jr. fumbles forward. Mr. Demange can convey mood and feeling with his filmmaking, but he can’t turn Rick Jr. into a viable character and neither can the inexpert Mr. Merritt.

Squint and you can sometimes make out the bigger, more complex stories in “White Boy Rick,” including those of a great city violently brought low; of fragile communities left to fail and rot; and of a legal system that seems permanently broken. Too often, though, the movie traffics in genre clichés and the usual suspects, as emissaries of law (mostly white) and disorder (black) swagger and scheme at the opposite ends of the O.K. Corral. Occasionally violence erupts for the old bang bang as some good actors come and go, including Jennifer Jason Leigh as an F.B.I. agent whose scenes suggest the movie that might have been.

If the movie were “Black Boy Rick” would it have been made? It’s a fair question given that American big-screen fictions about genuinely sympathetic, fully humanized black criminals are unusual and the only meaningful thing about the title character of this movie is that he was exploited by the law when he was barely old enough to shave. Mr. Wershe’s story is worth telling, and has been told well elsewhere. In this movie, by contrast, the story of his abuse by the criminal justice system — a desperate, commonplace state of affairs — has been turned into a screen fiction primarily, it seems, because of the paleness of his skin.

White Boy Rick
Rated R for guns, drugs and the usual bloody mayhem. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.

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