White Boy Rick is about the downfall of an American. Although to be honest, the titular character, Richard Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), might have never had a chance for redemption, since his father Richard Sr. (Matthew McConnaughey) surrounds him with guns that leads him to start hanging around with drug dealers. This leads to the FBI using him and letting him rot in prison. This should be compelling enough of a subject matter for a movie. But most of the people involved in the movie are too busy with depicting its small tragedies. The story’s biggest tragedy then, the one about the incarceration of a white teenager, seems negligible.
Rick’s life changes after he walks into Johnny ‘Lil Man’ Curry’s (Jonathan Majors) place to sell Richard’s modified AK-47s. Rick’s greed and Lil Man’s trustworthiness makes for a disastrous combination that last for at least four years. FBI Officer Alex Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) picks up on this. Merritt and director Yann Demange undersell the otherwise brazen moment. But they do it in such a way that any future decisions that these characters make feel arbitrarily insignificant. And strangely enough, other characters mention Rick and Lil Man’s flaws only to forget about them. Instead, this film seems to concern itself more with the regurgitation of the misadventures they will embark on.
This is a version of Rick’s real life which, like most downward trajectories, take some time before he hits bottom. But with this larger canvas, Demange loses a sense of energy. Audiences won’t feel the kind of momentum that his previous film ’71 had. He also loses Rick a large network of characters within the Detroit underworld. We see that world through archetypal victimhood regardless of the characters’ races. We also see the city through the unimaginative eyes of someone who isn’t American. Decay is omnipresent and generational here, and there are probably worse depictions of it in cinema. But here it’s still pretty bad and even bland.
There are, of course, things that this fictional retelling of Rick’s story get wrong. His mother was never out of the picture but her absence lets the other Wershes get a different dynamic. His sister Dawn (Bel Powley) is an addict who also goes in and out of the picture. There are also his grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) who he steals from. Powley gives the best performance here but it’s in service of a problematic juxtaposition. We watch her suffering while seeing the comfort of the black people Rick works with. This is one of many problems occuring as the film tries to juggle too many elements.