WHITE BOY RICK (2018) – Somber Authentic Tale of Family, Drugs, and Guns in 1980s Detroit

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Richie Merritt and Matthew McConaughey in WHITE BOY RICK (2018).

Matthew McConaughey is a helluva an actor.

I like to poke fun at his Lincoln TV commercials, but in the movies, he’s the real deal and then some.

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) which stars McConaughey is one of the most somber, depressing movies I’ve seen in a long while. It may not be an enjoyable film, but it is certainly an authentic one. At times I thought I was watching a documentary. It does an exceptional job capturing the depression of 1980s Detroit, and its story, while slow, is delivered without fanfare, led by two powerful performances, one by McConaughey, and the other by newcomer Richie Merritt.

WHITE BOY RICK opens at a gun show where Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) purchase semi-automatic weapons because that’s how Rick Sr. makes a living, by selling guns on the black market. Rick and his son live in Detroit. It’s the 1980s and the economy there is deplorable.  They are dirt poor and things are only getting worse. Rick talks optimistically about opening a video store but he never seems to get around to it.

They live alone in a run-down house, as Rick’s wife left them years ago, and Rick Jr.s older sister Dawn (Bel Powley), a junkie, moved out because she can’t stand her dad’s restrictions. Rick Sr.’s parents live next door, his cranky dad Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and his more soft-spoken mother Grandma (Piper Laurie).

Rick Jr. hangs out with his best friend “Boo” (RJ Cyler) whose dad Johnny (Jonathan Majors) operates the local drug trade. As Rick Jr. becomes closer to this seedy side of Detroit, he’s nabbed by FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane). They give Rick an ultimatum: if he sells drugs for them, in an effort to infiltrate and help them arrest the local drug pushers, they won’t arrest his dad for selling guns to drug dealers. Seeing that he has no choice, Rick Jr. agrees, and suddenly he’s playing a very dangerous game.

Eventually, as things continually get worse financially for Rick’s family, Rick Jr. decides to take matters into his own hands and use his drug contacts to sell drugs on his own. While Rick Sr. protests, arguing that selling drugs is bad news, he can’t deny that the money they could make dwarfs what they make selling guns, and they are desperately poor.

As I said, this is not a happy movie.

One of the main messages in WHITE BOY RICK is that under the drug laws of the 1980s it was actually worse to get caught selling drugs than it was to murder someone. Several characters mention this in the movie, and ultimately this is what happens when Rick Jr. is arrested. He receives a life sentence, And he was just a teenager.

It provides one of the more emotional moments of the film where Bruce Dern’s grandfather character cries out in court room, “He’s just a boy! How can you do this to just a boy!”

Not only can they do it, but they did do it, in real life, as WHITE BOY RICK is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. who did indeed receive a life sentence in 1988 for selling drugs.

There is nothing flashy about the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. It goes about its business telling its story without frills. As such, the pacing is slow as often the audience feels like a fly on the wall to some of the conversations and situations, but it does do a remarkable job fleshing out the its characters. You might not like these people, but you will feel for them, mostly because they come off as real.

Director Yann Demange captures poverty-stricken Detroit perfectly, in spite of shooting the film in Cleveland. The story he tells is raw and gritty, the characters unrefined and pungent, and the overall feeling of the film is somber and depressing.

Demange also gets the most out of his actors, as there are strong performances throughout.

Matthew McConaughey, as he almost always is, is excellent as Rick Sr., and newcomer Richie Merritt, who’s making his film debut, is just as good as Rick Jr. The two really seem like father and son.

McConaughey is near-perfect as the dad who just wants to do right by his family, but wouldn’t know a good idea if it knocked on his front door. Stuck selling guns, unable to help his drug-addicted daughter, and out of the loop regarding his son’s drug dealings, he nonetheless refuses to quit, even with all of life seemingly working against him. Eventually, he does go after his daughter and help get her clean, he does step up to help his son, but unfortunately, the need for money proved too great for him to tell Rick Jr. not to sell drugs.

The scene near the end of the movie where Rick visits his son in prison and sees that Rick Jr. is giving up, and he begs his son not to quit, knowing that there’s nothing he can do to help him, is one of the film’s best. When he cries out to his son that “he’s his best friend. You’re my only friend!” It is such a powerful realistic moment.

McConaughey fares much better here than in last year’s THE DARK TOWER (2017). This might be my favorite McConaughey performance since DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (2013.)

And Richie Merritt doesn’t seem like an actor playing a role at all. He seems like he is Rick Jr. It’s one of the more authentic performances I’ve seen this year.

Bel Powley is also very good as Rick Jr.’s sister Dawn, who like Merritt and McConaughey, doesn’t seem to be acting.  The trio come off as a real family, albeit a messed-up one, but a real one just the same.

Then you have veteran actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as a pair of FBI agents. Both RJ Cyler as “Boo” and Jonathan Majors as his drug dealing father Johnny are excellent, and character actor Eddie Marsan enjoys a couple of memorable scenes as drug dealer Art Derrick.

Not to mention cinema greats Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents of the family.  Dern gets to do more, as Grandpa is the more outspoken of the two and gets to utter some explosive lines here and there, but it was still good to see Laurie as well.

The cast in WHITE BOY RICK is really a plus.

And the film gets its title from Rick Jr.’s nickname. Since Johnny Curry and his gang were primarily black, and Rick Jr. was often the only white person in their inner circle, Johnny got to calling him “White Boy Rick.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from WHITE BOY RICK. But when all was said and done, and the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a potent movie.

This one is about as fun as a traffic accident, but there is not a shred of fluff to be found here. It plays as authentic as a documentary, and with a talented cast of actors, it does one better, as the characters it creates, while not likeable, are real and sympathetic. I didn’t like these folks and wouldn’t want to know them, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the injustice of Rick Jr.’s fate and the heartbreak of Rick Sr. when he realized he was never going to spend time with his son again.

WHITE BOY RICK has a lot to say about the motivations of people who just don’t have money to live their lives, and speaks to the imbalance of drug laws, how the punishment may not fit the crime.

You may not be hearing much about WHITE BOY RICK, and even if you are, it may not sound like something you want to see. But if you do see it, you’ll be in for a no-nonsense movie that speaks the truth about some unpleasant people, the choices they make, and the situations they find themselves in, people who ultimately you will feel empathy for.

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NEBRASKA (2013) Showcases A Father’s and Son’s Journey

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Nebraska posterBlu-Ray Review: NEBRASKA (2013)
By
Michael Arruda

I missed NEBRASKA when it came out in theaters, but I was eager to see it on Blu-ray because as a longtime fan of Bruce Dern, I wanted to see his Oscar-nominated performance.

It was well worth the wait.

In NEBRASKA, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a man clearly in the final stages of life, who may or may not be slipping into Alzheimer’s. He lives in Montana with his nagging wife Kate (June Squibb), and his present existence is lost and directionless. The film opens with him wandering along the highway where he’s picked up by the police.

At the police station, Woody tells his son David (Will Forte) that he was walking to Nebraska to collect the million dollars he had won. Woody shows David what he believes to be the notice proving that he’s won a million dollars. In reality, it’s a publishing clearing house letter, and David tries without success to tell his dad that this doesn’t mean he’s won a million dollars, to which Woody responds that it must be true since it says so in the letter.

Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) along with Kate wants to put Woody in a home, but David feels bad for his dad and in a spur of the moment decision, in part because he’s in a rut with his own life and could use the time away, decides to drive his dad to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David understands that the money isn’t the real issue for Woody. The real issue is his dad sees his life as worthless, and he needs a purpose to get out and do something, in this case to take a road trip to collect his million dollars.

So father and son head off to Nebraska and end up in the town Woody grew up in, where they reunite with Woody’s extended family, his brothers and their adult children, David’s cousins, as well as Woody’s former friends and acquaintances. Of course, when people learn that Woody has “won a million dollars” he becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, even being asked to do a newspaper interview. Soon things take a darker turn as family and friends alike begin to ask Woody for some of his winnings, and one former friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), even makes threats against him.

NEBRASKA is a slow-paced slice-of-life movie about life in mid-western America which reflects the sadness and poor economy of the past decade. It certainly paints a less than flattering picture of rural America.

As advertised, Bruce Dern is excellent as Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic whose life has seemingly passed him by. With his mental faculties in a deteriorating state, he’s a sad lonely figure who seems to have made the realization that his life wasn’t much to begin with. In one of the movie’s most poignant moments, near the end, Woody tells his son David why the money means so much to him, as he wants to be able to leave something to his children after he’s gone, and he wants to do this because he realizes that without this money, he has nothing to give.

Dern’s performance reminded me of Frank Langella’s similar performance in ROBOT AND FRANK (2012), a film where Langella played an aging father and former jewel thief dealing with a failing memory due to Alzheimer’s, the difference being Langella’s character had more spunk and was still up for the battle. Dern’s Woody is on his last leg. He’s tired, worn out, and aimless, with nothing seemingly to live for other than collecting his million dollars. To Woody, there hasn’t been much in his life worth getting exciting about other than booze. He’s not a character you want to look up to or emulate.

Yet, there’s more to Woody than meets the eye. On their journey together, David learns some things about his father that he never knew before, things that help explain his father’s behavior over the years. David learns that Woody was shot down over Korea, and that when he returned home, he was never the same. David also meets a woman running the local newspaper who tells him that years ago she almost married his dad, but lost out to David’s mother. David seems shocked to learn that another woman would even have feelings towards his dad, let alone be head over heels in love with him.

As David, Will Forte is almost as good as Dern, playing the son who loves his dad and is trying to do right by him, in spite of what he sees as his dad’s efforts to make things as difficult as possible. But unlike the rest of his family, he understands his dad and is always ready to cut him some slack and do what he can to help him.

June Squibb turns in a potent and hilarious performance in her Oscar-nominated role as Woody’s wife Kate. She’s a take-charge no-nonsense woman who’s constantly berating and talking down to her husband. Still, she gets the most laugh-out-loud moments in the movie.

Bob Odenkirk, who played the unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman on TV’s BREAKING BAD (“better call Saul”) is also memorable here as Woody’s oldest son Ross, who sides more with his mom Kate than Woody. And Stacy Keach is sufficiently cold and villainous as the who-needs-a-friend-like-this Ed Pegram, who makes it clear to David that his dad owes him money, and if he doesn’t pay up, there’s going to be trouble.

The entire cast is very good, but the film belongs to Dern, who does a nice job creating the character of Woody Grant, a man in the deep twilight of his years, sad, lost, and barely cognizant of what’s going on in his life, yet he remains sensitive enough to know that the million dollars gives him the opportunity to leave something to his adult sons, which obviously is a value that is important to him. Woody is not a loser. He’s an alcoholic.

Dern also gives Woody a quirkiness that is quite funny. One of his best scenes is when David asks Woody about his relationship with his mom, and Woody admits that he was never really in love with her. He married her because she asked him, and he figured, why the hell not? David is shocked to learn that his parents didn’t even talk about having kids, that the extent of their planning was that Woody “liked to screw.” The scenes with Woody’s brothers and extended family are priceless.

Director Alexander Payne has made another deliberate paced slice-of-life quirky drama that captures American life in a way that is not always flattering, yet always seems heartfelt and sincere, and so does not come across so much as a critique as it does a sad rendering.

While I enjoyed his previous films THE DESCENDANTS (2011) and SIDEWAYS (2004) better than NEBRASKA, in that both these films possessed more energy, I did prefer this one more than his earlier effort ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002). All of these films have been about journeys, as the main characters in these stories take a trip and learn about themselves. The journey in NEBRASKA may be the saddest of all of these, as Dern’s Woody might be the most desperate of all the characters yet in a Payne movie. Yet, the film is not a downer, and the ending to this particular story is certainly satisfying and uplifting.

The screenplay by Bob Nelson tells a memorable story about a man who at first glance seems like a poor candidate to build a story upon, but there’s more to Woody than meets the eye, and it’s these revelations that give both the character and his story some depth. Nelson’s story also has something to say about life in rural America, families, and what it means to be a man. Woody often seems to be fighting not only for his legacy but also for his manhood. He even admits that he drinks because he has to live with David’s mother. In fact, in scenes with Woody’s extended family, all the men sit silently in front of the television, while the women speak actively and aggressively in the next room, as they are clearly the ones pulling all the strings.

NEBRASKA is more than just a story about life in rural America. It’s also a portrait of how families interact, how people age, and how elderly parents and their adult children treat each other. It tells the tale of one man who seems ill-equipped to deal with these things, yet somehow, in the single act of wanting to leave something for his children, he does.

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