Director Yann Demange should be the perfect match for this story. His terrific first film, IRA thriller ‘’71’, was a frantic story of a young man trapped behind enemy lines. ‘White Boy Rick’ is also about a teenager who gets dropped into a very dangerous situation. Yet where that debut never slowed from a sprint, this Detroit-set drama ambles through its confusing plot.
Based on a true story, ‘White Boy Rick’ follows the young life of Rick Wershe Jr (newcomer Richie Merritt). The son of a gun dealer and small-time scammer, played by a greasy Matthew McConaughey, he was strong-armed into becoming an FBI informant at the age of 14. At the height of the 1980s drug epidemic, he was sent to infiltrate and spy on a Detroit drug ring (he gets the nickname for being the only white guy in the game).
Demange vividly creates a hopeless, crumbling cityscape, but the storytelling is ropey from the start. It’s sketchy on what the FBI made Rick do and why (they ask him to sell crack, for no clear reason), and the performance he asks of Merritt is so low-key that it gives no clues to Rick’s internal life. He comes across as a cocky kid who just drifts contentedly into a life of crime, more by choice than force. Any outrage this kid’s strange, betrayal-ridden story should muster in the audience dissipates long before the shrug of an ending.