By Christopher Sharrett.
Yann Demange’s White Boy Rick is a smaller-budget film of the season almost buried by franchise movies like The Nun (of “the Conjuring Universe”), Predator (another franchise reboot), and the usual cascade of juvenilia. The film deserves notice. I want first to take note of one of the film’s stars, Matthew McConaughey, an actor who refashioned himself and began a second career as a serious actor after being showcased as “the new Paul Newman” in worthless John Grisham fare and the like. It seems he is getting a little stuck in “tough white trash” roles, starting with (the very funny) Bernie, and William Friedkin’s startling Killer Joe. But he shows signs of stepping out of this persona, evidenced in part by his role as the unintentionally malevolent father Richard Wershe in Demange’s film, a “true crime” story that becomes a conscientious meditation on our times.
The film is set in 1980s Detroit, the city that has become the emblem for deindustrialized America. To the film’s credit, poverty is always at the center of the narrative, and the ways that this immiseration is tied directly to crime. One can argue that Richard’s son Rick (Richie Merritt) is led astray by his stupid, degraded father, but the more persuasive argument centers on the film’s foreclosing of options, suggesting how poverty is an unescapable trap.
The film opens at a gun show, where Richard purchases firearms that he will customize with “added French fries,” like silencers. This noxious bazaar is representative of the Last Stand mentality again sweeping the U.S.; the white male is entitled to shoot down anyone who displeases him, images of Wild Bill Hickok and Dirty Harry dancing in his head. The moment is important, as we take in NRA signs and ads for various gun manufacturers, as buyers approach tables like any consumer perusing dry goods at a flea market. In the Detroit of this film, everyone carries a gun: men, women, children. Richard instructs Rick in gun-handling; the boy is already very gun-savvy at film’s outset, able to face down a crooked dealer by distinguishing an Egyptian AK-47 machine gun from its Russian counterpart.
Rick is a drug user who gets the attention of local cops and the FBI, then forced into a sting operation that gets him shot; surgery saves him, but he must wear a colonostomy bag. His father dreams of opening a video store (there is a little irony here as we consider the fate of this industry) with his gun money. Rick knows this is a delusion: drug dealing is the only truly profitable way out. But Rick’s cocaine business is soon busted. Although – spoiler alert! – he was the youngest-ever FBI informant, he is sentenced to life imprisonment – the real Rick was released in 2017.
The film is unsparing in its consideration of the cruelty of the legal system, which is based, as one of Rick’s sinister mentor’s informs him, on “black time” and “white time,” with whites confined in country-club jails while blacks are placed in dungeons. The system, represented best by Agent Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is falsely sympathetic, then profoundly coercive. The lesson taught to Rick by his black friends like Boo Curry (RJ Cyler) is useful enough, but like all knowledge conveyed by father-figures in the film, not really accurate. Rick’s knowledge of survival doesn’t include a vision of complete escape. Rick, a kid with street-smarts to a fault but plenty of empathy for others, is (probably – one could make a case otherwise) the major victim of the film.
White Boy Rick presents a Detroit disassembled for sure, but one that appears to be integrated. Rick is accepted in black neighborhoods, talks the same street jive, and inadvertently fathers a child with a young black woman. Richard admires and accepts his grandchild, showing Rick how to rock the baby. This is not to say that all tensions are gone: the Wershes appear to live in a tiny white enclave, the grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie in very nice turns) across the street. Dern does another surly old man performance – whether his anger is based on poverty or racism or both is unclear, at least at first viewing (which is why I hesitate to write about a film at my stage in life after a single theatrical viewing – I wish reviewers, including the young ones, would take seriously my caution, even as deadlines militate against conscience).
Rick is very spontaneously known as “white boy.” He represents hope for the future in his unqualified affection for his black friends – even if their pastime is shooting rats in a tumbledown shed. But Rick, of course, has no future.
Noticeably missing from the film is education. Rick is only momentarily chided for not being in school. His ignorance is profound; when in Las Vegas for a spree with his pals, Rick buys a gold necklace with a Star of David. His father later dresses him down for not knowing the symbol’s meaning. The world of the film precludes knowledge of anything genuinely enriching to the human condition.
Grime and filth are spontaneously central to White Boy Rick’s mise-en-scene. Richard Sr. provides a decrepit bedroom in which his junkie daughter Dawn (Bel Powell) can withdraw from heroin. At one point she throws a glass of tomato juice at him. It misses him and smashes on the wall, the juice splattered about. There is the sense that this is no big deal, and no one is going to come running with rag, mop, and bucket. And accumulated filth will lead to disease, death, the end of the structure itself – and certainly the family. Adjacent to filth is ugliness, which applies to all the major characters, especially the Wershe family. I assume this is a function of makeup and lighting – the effect emphasizes the film’s uncompromising pessimism. But here is the rub: while the film has the needed ideological framework – the wretched father and the base city – there could be a tad more emphasis on the why of poverty – and segregation. Indeed, the topic is hardly addressed. The apocalyptic cinema can be a good index of where we are as a society, except for those works (The Walking Dead TV series) that want us to enjoy doomsday, with the assumption that the best of us will get through it. Films like the Purge series do a service by introducing into the popular cinema a sense of the apocalypse in slow motion, flowing from inherent political-economic assumptions. White Boy Rick shares this position, even if unfocused, its main contribution being its attempt to remind some of us that we aren’t children and want a film culture that acknowledges us as thinking citizens.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International.