Set in Detroit in the mid-1980’s and dealing with all sorts of drug crimes, White Boy Rick is the perfect movie for Oscar-bait.
Add in Matthew McConaughey and other well-known actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, and Brian Tyree Henry, and you have a cast that can stack up with anyone. So why does it feel like this movie is just a couple cents short of a full dollar?
The film centers around the FBI and local police recruiting and using the titular Rick as a pawn in their drug game. They had him infiltrate gangs, and they also had him move product on his own. Once left to his own devices and he keeps on with his activity, he then runs into trouble from both the cops and the gangs that surround him. Given the previews, the expectation is a mix of Wolf of Wall Street and a touch of a mid-90’s crime drama. The result was anything but that.
What you get instead is almost a plea to the viewers to take a look at the people that have been or will be serving jail time. Who are we putting there? Are we going after good guys, bad guys? The line between it all is much grayer than anyone likes to admit, and the movie expresses it well.
However, there are issues, and many of them issues start with the development of the characters. Richard Wershe Sr. (played by McConaughey) and 14-year-old Richard Wershe Jr. (played by newcomer Richie Merritt) are played very, very well. You see everything you need to see from them, and they are given plenty of scenery to chew on. The daughter/sister Dawn Wershe (played by Bel Powley) has some depth, but still feels 2D comparatively to the main characters. Add in FBI Agent Snyder (played by Jason-Leigh) and Detective Jackson (played by Henry), and it’s a movie packed with characters advancing a plot that could do a lot more with less.
Caught in between being a character study and a crime drama, it wants to be both badly. Choosing a lane and picking it would have benefited the film; a narrower focus could have let the story carry more weight. And while it’s already a somber movie, you feel torn over how you should ultimately take it in due to the pacing and tonal differences from Act 1 to Act 3. That doesn’t mean the movie is lousy per se; the moments of excellence just begin to become fewer as the film goes on.
In the end, White Boy Rick is slightly above average and acted well. It deserves a pair of eyes on it, but likely won’t leave an impact that will stick with you for days after viewing.