White Boy Rick is a sneaky sort of crime film. It is like the reverse of The Godfather: instead of a family drama that ends as a crime story, we have a crime story that ends as a family drama. There is the usual “rise and fall” arc, plus fleeting moments of human comedy, except the characters in this film are hardly in control of their destiny. In fact, the tragedy is how the family’s trust in government is their ultimate undoing. The film does not always work – the directors and screenwriters coast on the trappings of the crime genre – and yet there is an affecting arc to a boy who grows up way, way too quickly.
It is Detroit in the mid-1980s, right in the midst of white flight, urban decay, and the crack epidemic. Rick Wershe aka White Boy Rick (Richie Merritt) lives with his father (Matthew McConaughey) and sister Dawn (Bel Powley). The opening sequence is something you might see out of COPS: Rick’s father pulls a gun on Dawn’s boyfriend, while she chases them both through the street and Rick’s grandfather (Bruce Dern) watches from the sidelines. The sequence is played for laughs, even though this is a family on the cusp of a tailspin. Rick’s father is a huckstes who buys knockoff guns at a gun show, then upsells them to criminals. Following in his father’s footsteps, Rick falls into a gang led by the fearsome Johnny (Jonathan Majors).
At this point, I should pause and say White Boy Rick is a true story, since what happens next is so bizarre. Rick meets two FBI Agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochran) along with a Detroit Police Officer (Bryan Tyree Henry), who ask him to inform on the drug trade. He agrees – they pay him for his trouble – and this turns out to be Rick’s tragic mistake. He gets too cozy with law enforcement, while he rises through the proverbial ranks. There is also a coming-of-age element to this story: Rick meets a girl, gets her pregnant, and learns the hard way about who you can trust.
Directed by Yann Demange, the lengthy middle section sees Rick as a passive observer. Merritt is not especially charismatic, but he is believable as the sort of kid who inspires confidence. There is a racial subtext to this implied trust: unless he is with his family, Rick is frequently the only white person in a given scene. Demange and his screenwriters decline to pursue what this means in any significant detail; they just treat his skin color – and all the privilege that comes with it – as part of a bigger canvas. That being said, Demange uses light as a shrewd way of further differentiating Rick from his friends: many scenes happen in a roller rink, where the blue light reflects their brown skin in an alluring way that only makes Rick look sickly.
Rick’s involvement with law enforcement leads to arrests. This is a complex web of double crosses and failed bargains; to the credit of screenwriters Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller, the procedural details are all easy to follow. This is also where the film’s true purpose reveals itself: as a young father, Rick starts to see the value in family. His father cleans himself up – McConaughey is effective, not showy – and together with his son they rescue Dawn from a crack den. In an era of trickle down economics and “just say no,” the Wershes find a cohesive unit through mutual acceptance and pure economic need.
Throughout White Boy Rick, the phrase “650 grams” has heightened significance. If you’re caught with more than that much crack, then there is an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole. That risk – and how the various characters calculate against it – is why the film ends on a note of bitter sadness. Rick thought he could get away with it because the right people said the right things, and then the system fucks him over. Scarface also ends with a note of finality, but at least Tony Montana has the dignity of death. Rick has no such glory, and so for a genre that often veers toward operatic melodrama, there is power in the perfunctory, cruel tone of its final minutes. Longtime fans of gangster movies may be surprised or even unnerved by what they see, but they won’t soon forget it.