Everybody in “White Boy Rick” seems to be running some kind of scam. The title character (newcomer Richie Merritt), né Richard Wershe Jr., and his huckster dad (a bug-eyed, bemulleted Matthew McConaughey) have some kind of borderline-illegal gun business going. His sister’s a teenage drug addict dating a shady dude who offers her a ticket out of their sad Detroit home. Then there are the cops, who are recruiting suckers to go undercover, making the rules up as they go along. Every other speaking character — including Rick’s own grandparents (an opportunity for the inspired casting of Bruce Dern as McConaughey’s dad) — is a drug dealer or in some way associated with the crack epidemic.
Even director Yann Demange appears to be hustling here. On the strength of his blistering IRA thriller “’71,” he’s desperate to make the transition to Hollywood, who was equally excited to work with him, although it took no fewer than four years to deliver this gritty, true-crime story — one that, on paper at least, seems fairly well suited to his tense, street-level sensibility. Although Demange directs the heck out of it, “White Boy Rick” ultimately feels like a glorified TV movie, albeit with a better cast and a much hipper score.
The film depicts a terrible time in American history, when politicians, the press, and everyday citizens were convinced that drugs were at the root of violent crime. (Assault weapons certainly weren’t helping the problem, as illustrated by the opening scene, set at a gun show where Rick Sr. fast-talks a deal on a pair of AK-47s.) Law enforcement was desperate to combat the problem, and to do so, the FBI crossed the line, recruiting 14-year-old Rick to become an informant — apparently, the youngest ever.
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Scuzzy. That’s the word to describe the tetanus-infected look and feel Demange brings to 1984 Detroit. This was a year after Los Angeles instituted the D.A.R.E. program, and right at the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign — when crack cocaine was already a big problem in economically depressed Detroit, a place where teenagers hang out in abandoned buildings, whipping out pistols and blasting rats for fun. Surely, compared with this, playing secret agent must have been exciting — so why doesn’t the film set out to capture the cocky, chosen-one status Rick must have felt working for the authorities?
Who knows what the feds had in mind, but things did not go well for Rick, who would end up serving more than 30 years of a life sentence. Screenwriter Andy Weiss and brothers Logan and Noah Miller clearly see that as a scandal, blaming the government for betraying Wershe: They got him started as an undercover drug dealer, doing controlled buys (setups where the authorities ordered him to purchase drugs from suspected dealers in order to make a bust), before handing him a kilo of crack with orders to sell (for reasons that are never clear, and which later lead him into dealing on his own). But the writers leave out huge chunks of Wershe’s story, including that he was already fairly deep into criminal activity when the feds approached him about working for them, and they are inexplicably forgiving of the fact when Rick was arrested, the cops found a whopping eight kilos.
Earning his nickname as the lone white guy in an otherwise predominantly African-American social group, Rick was no innocent, which makes the movie’s insistence that the cops corrupted him feel disingenuous. Certainly, they had no business luring an adolescent into the dangerous realm of drug dealing, but there’s something inescapably phony about the way pretty much every detail plays out here.
The scene in which FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) pick up Rick walking the streets one night, leaning on narcotics detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry) to bad-cop him into buying some crack, feels clumsy and far too exposed compared with pretty much every other police-informant movie ever. After he reluctantly agrees, the movie never really makes clear what his duties are, which deprives the film of whatever suspense might normally accompany scenes in which a kid tries to pull off the grown-up job of cozying up to ruthless criminals.
Demange shows young Rick being welcomed into the trusted inner circle of the so-called Curry Crew — led by Leo “Big Man” Curry (rapper YG) and Johnny “Lil Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors), whose soon-to-be wife (Taylor Paige) he not-so-wisely covets. These guys have ties directly to the Detroit mayor, and the feds desperately want to bring down the entire corrupt system, which involves no shortage of dirty cops, but the movie never really makes clear how Rick is supposed to go about this. Instead, we get flashy scenes — like the one in which Johnny takes his posse to Vegas for a prizefight and winds up beating Leo so badly that … what? The movie routinely focuses its energy on surface style, failing to explain what Rick really wants at any given moment.
If anything, his father is the dreamer, a bad-example single parent labeled a “lowlife” by his own daughter (Bel Powley) for his constant scheming. In his agitated over-acting, McConaughey looks every bit as committed to this role as he must have been to his weight-shedding “Dallas Buyers Club” or weight-adding “Gold” performances, though his greasy look seems considerably tamer than that of the characters he played in “Killer Joe” or “True Detective.” The standout turn here is Merritt’s, projecting both the streetwise toughness that attracted the authorities and the kind of determination that, under different social circumstances, might have allowed for Rick to find a legitimate path to a better life. What ultimately happened to Wershe was a scandal, though it’s hard to get too worked up when the movie itself is such a jumble.