White Boy Rick
Directed by Yann Demange
Screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller and Noah Miller
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Rory Cochrane, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie
Based on a real-life figure, Richard Wershe Jr, who became the youngest FBI informant in history, Yann Demange’s “White Boy Rick” is a static look at a family on the verge of breaking apart in the slums of 1980’s Detriot.
The script by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller focuses on the everyday dangers presented to the Wershe family. Matthew McConaughey plays Richard Wershe Sr, a businessman who bought and sold arms legally. His son, Richard learned the trade and became street smart at a very young age, making him a valuable asset to the FBI. Bel Powley plays Dawn Wershe, Jr’s sister the lynchpin for the family.
Demange paints the risks to the Wershe’s with a broad stroke. Detroit at the time was a haven for corrupt politics and stronger drugs.
Underpinning the time the film is set, each actor’s performance was subtle and nuanced, McConaughey especially. He had his kids to worry about let alone worrying about getting killed for selling weapons. Newcomer Richie Merritt’s performance as Richard Jr is equally as subtle and emotion – driven. He plays ‘tough’ as well as ‘caring’ and ‘regret’.
Dawn spends most of the movie escaping from their reality. Through the haze, she trusts Jr to do the right thing. There’s a scene towards the end of the second act where father and son go to retrieve Dawn. Dawn’s reaction and McConaughey’s nuanced approach make the scene one of the more powerful in the film. The emotion in the scene between father and son, father and daughter and, especially brother and sister creates such tension that, when it lets up, you should be spent.
The lead cast is nothing without their supporting counterparts. Jennifer Jason Leigh as FBI Agent Snyder played the subtle card as effectively as the lead cast. She was nonplussed as McConaughey’s Wershe Sr grills her for assurances. Rory Cochrane, who plays somewhat of a chameleon in other roles, has a bit more to say as her partner, Frank Byrd. He was perhaps the most vocal role of the troupe, but his acting style sublimates the risk to Jr as well as to Sr.
Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie play Ray and Vera Wershe, Richard Sr’s parents. They live right around the corner from Sr’s family. Even at 82 years of age, Dern still can raise his voice in a quiet way, his experience prevailing. There’s a scene where Jr is staying with them. It’s a quiet morning, Ray makes pancakes for Vera, and she curtly reminds him that she doesn’t like pancakes. Jr walks into the room and Ray asks him if he wants the pancakes, Jr politely deflects the offer. Instead of raising his voice, objecting to the proffered food, he just throws his hands up in the air, realizing he’s lost that battle. And they were damned perfect pancakes too.
That’s the type of filmmaking that Yann Demange displays for us: expert performances full of quiet rage and fury, signaling nothing. There’s the rub with the film. The performances are all exceptionally low-key that the story simply can’t keep pace. It tries to be bigger than the characters and events it contains. Even the stronger scenes, as tense as they were, weren’t really effective in the grand scheme of the story.
I confess to not being familiar with Richard Wershe Jr’s story. In fact, very few people knew of his story until 2014 when Evan Hughes published a long article in The Atavist, “The Trials of White Boy Rick.” Though the article is not the basis for the screenplay, it tells the story of how the FBI coerced Wershe Jr. in to the life that he had to live. It is much more than that though and you will have to see the movie to better understand what I’m referring to.
The film is not “Goodfellas,” though it feels like it could have and should have been.
2 out of 4