White Boy Rick
Runtime 116 minutes
Some movies are terrible from the get-go. Others grab you right away and keep you riveted. This is the latter. Based on the true story of Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son, Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt in his acting debut), Rick becomes a police informant and a drug dealer beginning when he is only 15- years-old.
Directed by Yann Demange from a script by Andy Weiss and Logan & Noah Miller, the dialogue, direct from the streets, is authentic and credible. Merritt and McConaughey give Oscar-quality performances and they are ably backed up by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as the FBI agents who begin working with Rick as a confidential informant, and Brian Tyree Henry as narcotics Detective Jackson; Bruce Dern as Rick’s grandfather, Roman “Ray” Wershe; Piper Laurie, who went to my junior high school (long before me), as Rick’s grandmother, Verna Wershe; and last but not least Bel Powley as Rick’s sister, Dawn. In fact, if there is a performance that is exceeded only by Merritt’s, it is Powley’s.
Rick was the youngest FBI informant ever. The story is told through a tempestuous, byzantine relationship between Rick and his father, who is a consummate hustler trying to bring up a son and a daughter and provide for them doing things like buying guns and reselling them, a pretty sleazy guy on the outskirts of respectability. But he clearly loves his children, and most of what he does seems to be to help them, however misguided his advice might be.
Rick feels responsibility for his sister, who is involved with a bad boyfriend and drugs, and his father, so he feels compelled to do things he knows aren’t right.
Rick and his father come face to face with the terrible corruption of Detroit police, politicians, and the FBI, and are clearly overmatched. This is a heart-wrenching but captivating film whose tension never lags.
Although filmed in Cleveland, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe and Production Designer Stefania Cella brilliantly reproduced the stagnating atmosphere of Detroit in the 1980s. This unique ambience is an essential character in the movie.
Despite the presence of Oscar-winning McConaughey, the star of the movie is Merritt. He is in almost every scene and he carries the film with a truly remarkable performance, especially considering it’s his debut.
Spoiler Alert: This film clearly has a POV, however I am not convinced. It is undisputed that after he was an informant he became a big time drug dealer. The movie, which takes the position that he was railroaded and left out to dry by his law enforcement handlers, pretty much glosses over that fact.
Tony Medley is an MPAA-accredited film critic. See more reviews at TonyMedley.com.