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White Boy Rick ••1/2

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley
Director: Yann Demange
Screenplay: Andy Weiss, Logan Miller
Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: September 14, 2018


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Let’s go back to the halcyon days of the 1980’s Detroit. Will you “Just Say No” to this review?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I’m dissing the late Nancy Reagan by saying “yes”. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to 14-year-old Rick Wershe (Richie Merritt) and his father Richard (Matthew McConaughey) who are buying AK-15s at a guns show. Richard makes silencers for the guns to sell at a profit. Rick takes the guns to a local drug kingpin Boo Curry (RJ Cyler) to sell. Curry is impressed with Rick’s chutzpah and invites him to join his operation. It isn’t long before Rick proves his value to Curry. Not only does Curry notice, but so does the FBI.

The FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) ask Rick to go undercover for them in his dealings with Curry. The agents threaten to arrest Rick’s dad unless he complies. Rick does his work with Curry, and soon Richard becomes suspicious of Rick and finds thousands of dollars hidden in Rick’s bedroom. Even worse, Curry’s gang begins to distrust Rick and ends up shooting the boy. Rick recovers and convinces his dad to make money dealing drugs, and Rick is eventually arrested.

Scott, this could have been an interesting movie – if we knew the point of it at the start. Otherwise it’s a confusing mess of a film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to tell us. It’s based on the true story of Rick Wershe who has the distinction of serving the longest sentence for a non-violent crime in the history of Michigan. At the end of the film we’re shown the boy in jail and a voice over tells us that he served 30 years of a life sentence. In the 1980s during the “war on drugs”, Michigan had a law that sentenced anyone holding more that 650 grams of cocaine to life in prison. Even armed robbers and murderers had lesser sentences.

But the filmmakers try to make Rick look like a victim of the FBI’s plan to entrap the mayor of Detroit as the mastermind behind the city’s drug ring. They start out pretty well, showing Rick as a caring young man mostly concerned for his sister’s welfare. Then he looks like a victim when the FBI recruits him to work the drug ring from the inside. When the FBI raids Curry’s gang, Curry has him shot. That’s when Rick gets out of the game.

But after Rick gets out of the hospital, things are dire and he convinces his father to take over Curry’s market. After all, Rick knows the whole game. He’s doing pretty well when he, himself, is raided by the FBI. The FBI makes a deal with Rick: if he helps them catch the mayor, they’ll try to help him out with the court. Long story short, it doesn’t work out and Rick gets life in prison. So, we have the same problem here that I had with The First Purge: namely, trying to make a sympathetic hero out of a drug dealer.

And it doesn’t work for me. In the first half of the film we do feel sorry for Rick. He has no other way out but to do the bidding of both Curry and the FBI and he is a victim and nearly pays for it with his life.

But then, in the second half of the film, he has a choice. And he chooses to break the law and sell drugs knowing full well that what he is doing is wrong. When he’s sentenced to life in prison, I don’t feel sorry for him. He isn’t a victim of the system. He is the recipient of his own destiny due to his bad choices. This is not a hero’s story.

Greg, you make a good argument about Rick being more of an anti-hero than a hero. But I think there’s a larger point to be made that goes beyond the issue of whether Rick is deserving of jail time.

First, let’s agree that White Boy Rick is a dark, lurid portrayal of a teenage boy’s descent into the harsh world of crime and then into the even harsher American penal system. This movie is meant to disturb us, focusing as it does on human lives compromised by poverty, drugs, guns, blight, and corruption. Rick had a tough environment to overcome, and when he fails to overcome it, he has an ever tougher criminal justice system to surmount. Does he really deserve life in prison? Or even 30 years? That’s the point of the film — it highlights the sad fact that tens of thousands of U.S. prison inmates in long-term incarceration are non-violent drug offenders.

The filmmakers make an odd choice to cast a non-actor named Richie Merritt to play the lead role, and I believe the movie suffers a bit as a result. His flat performance, which I call “non-acting”, is reminiscent of the non-actors in the film, The 15:17 to Paris, which starred the actual heroes who foiled a terrorist attack on the French train. These non-actors reminded me of Richie Merritt in the flatness of their expressions and actions. The lesson is clear: If you make a movie, you had better cast real actors or be prepared for mediocre performances.

Fortunately in White Boy Rick, the other actors surrounding Merritt rise to the occasion and make this film quite watchable. Matthew McConaughey steps up and delivers a monster performance as Rick’s dad, a man who is always chasing lucrative dreams without ever achieving them. Rick’s sister Dawn (Bel Powley) is riveting as a tormented drug addict whose life never unfolds in this constrained environment. Bruce Dern as grandpa is largely a throwaway role but Dern makes the most of it. All of these stellar performances make White Boy Rick watchable despite some of the issues with the film that we’ve raised.

Actually, I liked Merritt in the role. But what I had a problem with is the fact that it uses a white man to examine a problem that is prominent for black men. It is black men who are incarcerated at unprecedented levels for non-violent crime as part of the “war on drugs.” But perhaps the filmmakers felt they could draw sympathy from a white audience if they showed it happening to a white man.

In the end, I felt cheated by White Boy Rick. I thought this would be the story of how a 15-year-old kid brought down a drug ring. But it was, instead, a story of moral outrage of uneven drug sentencing. While I thought all the performances and technical aspects of the film were fine, I can’t get past the story itself. I feel no sympathy for White Boy Rick and give the film 2 out of 5 Reels.

And I can’t get past a hero who knowingly does wrong. It is hard for me to in any way think of Rick as a victim when he’s selling poison to his community. He wasn’t holding a nickel bag of cocaine. He wasn’t even holding the maximum “allowable” quantity of 650 grams. He had over eight kilograms of cocaine in his possession and was distributing in a major way. He had become a drug kingpin. I don’t know why he merits his own movie. I give him 1 out of 5 Heroes.

There are archetypes aplenty here. DRUG KINGPIN, GUN RUNNER, VICTIM. But none of interest. I give this film 2 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

White Boy Rick is one of those movies that, on paper and in the theater, is not terribly good. Yet it has the “memorability” factor going for it. The characters here are highly memorable, most notably the father Richard and the sister Dawn. Even the rundown city of Detroit in the 1980s, with its dilapidated buildings and scurrying rats, is extremely vivid and memorable. So while I can’t recommend this film on the “Merritt” of its story, I find it to be interesting enough from a character and archetypal standpoint to give it a rating of 3 Reels out of 5.

Our anti-hero Rick is a sympathetic figure despite making some awful life choices. He’s not a bad person; he can be seen as a victim of an impoverished and corrupt environment from which few people, even the best people, can escape. Should we feel badly that he went to jail? Probably not. But we should be at least somewhat outraged at his overly brutal prison sentence. Rick’s journey is not traditional at all from a Joseph Campbell standpoint, but it is worth seeing. I give him 3 Anti-Hero points out of 5.

With regard to archetypes, we have some juicy ones. There is the corruptible teenager, the big-deal chaser, the cranky grandfather, the street gang, the gangster leader, the corrupt cops, and the evil government. I give these archetypes 4 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

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