Film Review – White Boy Rick
White Boy Rick
White Boy Rick (2018) has the look and feel of a film that has something interesting to say. But once we dig beneath the surface – beneath the believable aesthetics and convincing performances – we find an empty center. I’m sure the writers (Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, Noah Miller) and director (Yann Demange) set out with a specific goal in mind, whether it be 1980s drug culture, the inequalities and hardships suffered by those of lower economic standing, or maybe the corruption of our justice system. But somewhere along the way these themes fade out of focus, leaving us wondering what exactly we’re supposed to take away from what we’ve just seen.
A major issue is that the narrative is ambivalent toward everyone involved. We’re dropped into the mean streets of Detroit. This is deep in the lifestyle of the 80s, where Reagan era politics, the “Just Say No” war on drugs, and an emphasis on extravagance fueled people’s greed for excess. This caused many to delve into crime, especially in the drug trade. Some may argue that people turn to crime because that is the only option they have to get out of poverty, and that point is valid. But the issue with this story is that no one we run across are all that likable or empathetic. There’s not much for us to attach to on an emotional level. Why should we be concerned about these characters if we’re given very little to understand who they are?
It’s certainly not with our main character, Rick (Richie Merritt). Rick is a 15 year old high school drop out, whose father Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) straps together money by illegally selling firearms out of the trunk of his car. His sister (Bel Powley) is a runaway drug addict. He lives across the street from his grandparents (Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie), who spend most of their time swearing at each other or are on the verge of swearing at each other. Rick dreams of having a better life, and he finds an opportunity by ingratiating himself in the local drug scene. He builds ties with dealers (which the film strangely portrays as nearly all black Americans) and thus gains the nickname “White Boy Rick.” He learns the trade quickly and efficiently, and is so good at it that it draws the attention of Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s FBI agents.
On paper, this is a fascinating story – a fifteen year old kid experiencing both the highs and lows of selling drugs. But the writing and direction paint Rick without enough nuance for us to gravitate toward him. Why should we care about a person who willingly commits crime? The film argues that what Rick did was nonviolent, but attention is never paid to the countless lives that were destroyed from him selling drugs on the street. Rick loves his sister and worries about her addiction, but did it ever cross his mind that her problem came because of a business he works in? She very well could have used the drugs that he sold. One moment Rick is a savvy businessman who convinces his dad that he knows the game and can make it work for them, but then turns around a fires his gun in public, putting people at risk. It’s a strange imbalance that Demange and the rest of the production never really gets a good handle on. Are we supposed to root for Rick or be repulsed by him? What made Goodfellas (1990) a classic is that Martin Scorsese understood that this environment was not a healthy one, despite all the glamour and money. I’m not so sure White Boy Rick has that same laser sharp clarity.
On a visual level, the filmmakers capture Detroit as a seedy, wet, and cold place. Demange does have a strong sense of mood, and displays a world filled with anxiety and dread. These characters have to think about where they’re going to get their next meal, how they’re going to pay their bills, who’s going to be betrayed by a friend, or if the police are just outside their door ready to break in. These elements set the stage for some fine performances all around. Bel Powley does good work as Rick’s strung out sister. It is not easy playing a person who is always walking a tightrope, ready to fall off at any moment, but Powley is up to the task and does the job well. And McConaughey steals every scene he’s in as the mustachioed, mullet wearing elder Rick. The relationship between father and son is the best thing we get, and McConaughey is able to play his character with various degrees of buffoonery, slick salesmanship, and as a caring parent. All his character wants to do is open a video store, even if it means selling guns to do it.
And that right there is at the heart of White Boy Rick. It’s a film about contradictions, where we’re asked to attach to characters that do really bad things. In the end, we’re given the obligatory title cards explaining what happened to everyone (this is apparently based on a true story). The argument is made that Rick was a victim of circumstance and of an unjust system, but the film we just saw showed him making poor choices that could have only lead to one place. He played with fire and got burned, badly.