Review: Tale of 'White Boy Rick' and '80s Detroit unfocused

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Richie Merritt (left) and Matthew McConaughey (right) in "White Boy Rick."

The story of Richard Wershe Jr. is a larger-than-life tale of drugs, corruption and youth that is tailor-made for the big screen, yet the invigorating yarn is given a muddled treatment in “White Boy Rick.” 

The scattered true-life story unfolds in the ruins of 1980s Detroit, where the crack epidemic is running rampant and the closest thing to good news is the Detroit Tigers’ 1984 World Series victory.

That win isn’t much consolation for the Wershe family, father Richard (Matthew McConaughey), son Ricky (newcomer Richie Merritt) and daughter Dawn (Bel Powley).

Their cracked family dynamic is introduced in an early scene where Richard and son return early after scoring some cheap AKs from a gun show. That sends Dawn, who was inside with a man, fleeing from the house in her underwear while Grandma and Grandpa (Piper Laurie and Bruce Dern) look on disapprovingly. The Partridge Family they’re not.

It’s not for a lack of good intentions. Richard wants to be a solid father; he just doesn’t have the right tools at his disposal. He does manage to teach his son hustle and street smarts, and how to work a room.

“We’re lions,” he tells him, his voice full of pride.

But the realities they face are harsh, and the young Wershe heads down a path straight to jail, where the real White Boy Rick still sits today in Florida. (He is due out later this year.)

Ricky himself is no innocent, and to the film’s credit, he’s never painted as such. He starts out selling cheap guns to local drug gangs, and Pops teaches him the art of the upsell — toss in a homemade silencer, and there’s some real money to be made on the deal.

Ricky carries himself with confidence and bravado and doesn’t back down from anyone; he’s often the lone Caucasian among a group of African-Americans, earning him his memorable nickname.

“You either stupid or crazy,” he’s told by a local gangster.

He’s not stupid. He’s smart enough that he’s able to manage a dual life as he gets roped in working for the authorities, led by detective Jackson (“Atlanta’s” Brian Tyree Henry) and FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane). The specifics of their arrangement are left cloudy, in part because the feds seem to be making things up as they go along, in part because the script (by Andy Weiss and brothers Logan and Noah Miller) feels convoluted and unclear as to what elements of the story it wants to focus on. 

For a while, Rick is living large, collecting cash that soon overflows from the Adidas box he keeps underneath his bed and buying flashy jewelry he doesn’t understand. (He flaunts a Jewish star of David because he thinks it looks cool but has no idea what it means.)

 “White Boy Rick” suffers from an abundance of plot threads competing for screen time, and it’s a struggle to squeeze everything in and keep the story flowing at a steady pace. Director Yann Demange makes a pointed effort to not tell the typical “Scarface” rise-and-fall version of this story, focusing instead on the family aspects and the father-son tale. 

Yet that puts it at odds with itself, and “White Boy Rick” doesn’t pop the way it should, and it often feels like it doesn’t have room to properly breathe. 

Demange (“’71”) does an admirable job of keeping the film gritty and free of flash; its muted color palate gives the film the dark, damp feel of a Michigan winter.

There’s rich detail in the film’s production design, from the Farmer Jack grocery bags to the WLLZ bumper sticker in Ricky’s room to the deep blue of the classic Michigan license plates, which is authentic to mid-to-late ’80s Detroit. (Cleveland stands in for Detroit for most of the film, though some exterior pick-up shots were filmed locally.)

McConaughey sees the layers in his character, a self-described “glass-half-full-kinda guy” and dreamer (he longs to open up a video store), and he gives him a warmth that sometimes feels under-explored; he lights up in a scene where he handles Ricky’s child for the first time. McConaughey is the heart of the film, and the Oscar winner gives his character depth even in the smallest scenes.

Merritt, in his first acting job, has the juiciest role, but he doesn’t display the charisma that was essential to Rick’s ability to work both the Feds and the streets and thrive in both roles. He has a natural, understated screen presence, but the sizzle is missing, and he falls short of hooking the audience into his incredible journey.

He’s never sentimental, and the script doesn’t attempt to make audiences feel sorry for Ricky. But you don’t have to feel sorry for him to care; the things that made Wershe’s story so captivating aren’t maximized, and as a result, neither is the audience investment.

The “White Boy Rick” story is complex and multifaceted. It’s a tale of right and wrong, greed, power and corruption. This telling gets a lot of the details right, but pulling away, the bigger picture is left rather blurred.


‘White Boy Rick’


Rated R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references and brief nudity

Running time: 116 minutes