White Boy Rick review: Matthew McConaughey's hardscrabble crime drama is a hard sell

Tim Robey
Richie Merritt (White Boy Rick, right) and Matthew McConaughey  - © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT I

Dir. Yann Demange. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Eddie Marsan, Bel Powley, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie. 15 cert, 111 mins

White Boy Rick is about a teenage arms dealer, drug pusher and FBI informant in 1980s Detroit who looks quite a bit like the young Henry Hill of Goodfellas, with that same wisp of pubescent moustache. His shock of curls suits the period – in fact, everything does.

Following up his cracking IRA thriller 71 with a sidestep to American true crime, Yann Demange serves up a more familiar piece this time: there’s a trace of biopic-by-numbers in the story of Rick Wershe, Jr (Richie Merritt) and his father, Rick Sr (Matthew McConaughey), who stood by largely helpless as his son finessed his way through a high-rolling crime spree, with a little help from the authorities.

McConaughey is well into his career’s disreputable mullet phase – hair slicked lankly back, and features dominated by that rheumy, troubled gaze he can do so well. It’s novel, at least, to watch him mainly in the mode of a protective parent freaking out on the sidelines, even if he’s the kind of protective parent who sends his 15-year-old son in at the start to sell AK-47s to drug dealers, and can’t stop his daughter (Bel Powley) sliding into junkie oblivion. Rick Sr is a useless dad, all told, even if he’s one who wishes he’d made better decisions and could find a way to undo them: the mother has walked out on the lot of them, and it’s hardly any wonder.

It’s Merritt, a complete newcomer, who carries the film, and we shouldn’t under-credit Demange for getting this performance out of him. With his mumbled bravado and slouchy mix of slow-wittedness and animal calculation, he’s deeply ordinary and utterly convincing. Rick’s grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) are still on the scene, just about, but he’s already a loose cannon, earning money hand over fist, when the FBI tap him up. Because he has no fixed loyalty to anyone, he’s soon in their pockets, too.

Baseline compelling, Rick’s misadventures over the next few years bring him into the fold of a family called the Curry brothers, whose hot-headed territorial antics make him a potentially dangerous witness. The script lacks clarity, though, on what the FBI thought they were doing with him, or what endgame they ever envisaged: essentially, there’s no protection offered and he ends up being thrown under a bus. The stakes, other than Rick’s survival, are blurry and muddled in that way true-crime pictures often can be, and the middle stretches of the film needed more shaping – there aren’t enough vivid set-pieces to pull us into his predicament, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is unusually anonymous as his principal FBI handler.

All in all, it’s not the advance on 71 we might have hoped from Demange, but it’s quite a long way from bad. His talents for grittily building a milieu are always on show, and there’s something very satisfying about his taste in ambient sound design. The mournful, creeping, Gorecki-ish score by Max Richter (Stranger Things, Arrival) is memorably spare and sad, especially suiting the ending, a downbeat father-son duet with McConaughey and Merritt letting it all out.

Perhaps it’s the inbuilt fatigue of the story that has made it a comparatively hard sell – this isn’t one of the more hyped films of the season. But that’s a gutsy approach, in its way, and there’s an honesty to the hardscrabble family portrait that makes it worthwhile.