By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
During the 1980s Detroit teen Richard Wershe, Jr. not only became a street hustler and drug dealer, he became the youngest FBI informant, all before the age of 16. A new crime drama by director Yann Demange recreates these amazing events of Wershe’s life. Though the film treads territory quite common to crime dramas, there is no denying the compelling power that Wershe’s story has. Certainly a cautionary tale (like most criminal stories), White Boy Rick, because of the writing of Andy Weiss, Logan and Noah Miller, the solid direction by Demange, and the superb performances by Matthew McConaughey and young actor Richie Merritt, makes for a gripping and entertaining piece of true crime cinema.
Merritt stars as the titular protagonist, a high school dropout desperate to help his struggling father (McConaughey) make ends meet and keep the bills paid. Though Richard Sr. hustles as an illegal gun dealer, the family barely manages to stay affloat. Rick decides to take matters into his own hands by working for a local drug kingpin. Not long after he joins the crew, two federal agents, Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane), force Rick to get in deeper with his colleagues in hopes of bringing down the organization and their connections in the local police and city government. As Rick works both sides of the law, his life and the lives of his family members face grave danger with no one to genuinely trust.
Rick Wershe, Jr’s story might not be the greatest crime story ever told, but it is definitely one of the more fascinating ones. Armed with this rich material, director Yann Demange, along with his cast and crew do a solid job of bringing it all to life. The director and his writers have developed the story into a riveting film with much heart and love. Richard Wershe, Jr. may have been seduced into the dark world of drugs and wealth, but he does this to save his family and with the hopes of making all of their dreams come true.
Demange, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, and the production crew give the world of 80s Detroit an appropriately dank and dirty look with just the right splashes of color and light from the palette of the era. Demange and the art crew don’t go overboard with style and exercise restraint with the creation of this gritty world. The film has all of the proper swagger for Rick’s rise and pumps the brakes fervently when things get out of control.
The two lead actors shine beautifully in their roles. McConaughey’s stellar performance should come as no surprise, as the talented and charismatic actor could charm anyone in his sleep. Still, he brings much passion and love to his role as the caring, but beleaguered Richard Wershe, Sr. What is more impressive and surprising is the phenomenal turn by young newcomer Richie Merritt. The young man not only holds his own when sharing the screen with his movie father, he also swaggers and performs with much confidence, mixed with heart and bright-eyed innocence. The film also can boast great work by Bel Powley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and more.
I am not sure this film will earn any awards nominations for best picture, direction or writing, but I can see Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt earning some nods for their acting. Their performances are the key reasons I must highly recommend this movie. Still, White Boy Rick‘s story and the way it is presented here make it all so much sweeter.