As with James “Whitey” Bulger or the Kray twins, Richard Wershe Jr. has a crime-glazed life primed for the movies. In times when we, for argument’s sake let’s assume “we” means the majority, juggled homework, young love or existential crises from not knowing which career to pursue, the Michigan native dealt — literally — with cocaine, its top dealers, their federal apprehenders and lifelong imprisonment for a nonviolent drug offense. What’s that about your teenage years being wild again?
Yet, as with Black Mass and Legend, White Boy Rick is a missed shot, an effort that nullifies its subject and in turn degrades their ability to inform and entertain. The promise of a rousing higher-they-climb-harder-they-fall tale of a criminal is there (and is promoted), but what shows up amounts to a briefcase with air inside: a vague ascent, impact-free descent and zero cause to do some follow-up research. Do attempt to muster some for the latter, still — The Trials of White Boy Rick from writer Evan Hughes for Atavist Magazine is a good start — so you can recover from the washout.
That said, where the film completely fails to be a true-crime affair — let alone that and a commentary on systemic injustice — it at least has dramatic performances that will always capture your attention. Richie Merritt, in his debut role, exudes the swagger to convince that Rick can go one-on-one — or, ideally, be one — with those who have inhabited the underworld for way longer. You’ll see that right away, too, in the opening where Rick, while at a gun show, foils a man’s plan to sell him a Russian AK that is actually Egyptian-made. Merritt’s turn, one full of quiet strength and palpable gravity, reminds that of James Frecheville in Animal Kingdom, then also a newcomer.
It’s definitely a blessing when surrounding the young actor are performers who make being enticing an effortless act; Matthew McConaughey (as Rick Sr.) chews every scene he’s in — yes, even with that mullet — but always rivaling him (and it’s fitting, character-wise) is Bel Powley as Rick’s older sister, Dawn. The girl has a home and a bed, though they are second to the den and the mattress at the dealer’s in another part of the Motor City. Powley’s strongest moment is no doubt the heartrending scene where her character undergoes withdrawal at home and becoming a total-180 of her loose-cannon, to-hell-with-custard vibe in the beginning.
With these domestic goings-on, The Wershes seems like it would have been a more fitting title for the film. And it is, so long as the trio of government agents played by charismatic (and underused) Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane and Brian Tyree Henry are not in the frame and from there steer the narrative back on the White Boy Rick track. It’s in the sequences featuring them that director Yann Demange (’71) is in control of the better, and perhaps more correct, version of the film, the one where we get to assume Rick’s eyesight and cultivate a take on the justness of justice. That right there should have been the focus, but then it’s back to the familial dysfunctionality and, in turn, the dimming in significance of someone who has amassed enough cred to have “SNOW MAN” as his car’s license plate. Perhaps the opportunity to learn more about the Icarus of the 1980s Detroit’s drug scene will be in another reel down the line, one that will spelunk into the individual (truly and wholly), his connections (friends and employers are gone just as they show up) and the discussions he raised (that are still worth talking about today).