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'White Boy Rick': The Wild, Wild Midwest
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
12:12PM / Friday, September 21, 2018
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My dad was a bench seat philosopher who, while a man of measured words, occasionally liked to opine from behind the wheel of our '51 Buick Roadmaster, the one with the Fireball 8 engine.
 
I look back at it as our quality time. Maybe it was a quick trip to Sears to buy some roofing material, or to get me some White Castle sliders on a night when my mom was just too tired to cook. Or perhaps it was my tutelage entirely planned. Looking through the windshield, Daniel Goldberger explained the passing pageant of humanity.
 
It could be a little man walking with a very tall woman: "See, there's someone for everyone."
 
And in a similar point of positivism that hadn't been discouraged by his several years in the Polish underground during WWII, we'd chuckle when he'd inevitably point out a very homely dog being walked by its obviously adoring owner: "See, there's always someone to love." But while he didn't leave out the bad stuff, like the crooked businessman, the thief or the scoundrel, he gave them only humorless short shrift, dutifully identifying them as a sorry fact of life.
 
Filling that category to our utter disgust is the social horror depicted in director Yann Demange's "White Boy Rick." Evoked in an entirely different context but nonetheless apt, the words, "the honesty's too much," from Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch," seems to blare from every sordid seam of this true story about how 15-year-old Rick Wershe Jr. became an FBI informant. 
 
You scratch your head in disbelief, discomfort and disconsolation at the nightmare scenario that helped turn a disadvantaged, troubled life into a completely ruined one. This is tough duty in that while such realities must be put up in our face if we are to ever do anything about it, after nearly two hours spent in the underbelly of Detroit we want to take a shower, cry uncle and wish that we weren't part of a world that had this ghastliness in it. It is reason for anguish not merely because it exists, but because we keep sweeping its root cause under the carpet of indifference. 
 
Not an innate malevolence, it is but a simple matter of the inequalities we ourselves breed by not cultivating and nourishing our democratic system.
 
Somewhere along the line, just after we happened upon the idea of universal suffrage, a detractor who doubtless had a vested interest started spreading the lie that our vote doesn't matter, that there's no difference between parties, that they're part and parcel of the same thing. "Oh, yeah," I say, "Have you looked out the window lately, pal?" 
 
Granted, it's more complicated than that, and in detailing the snake pit of corruption that enveloped White Boy Rick, the director scathingly parses the colliding forces that wrought his tragedy.
 
Detroit, mid-1980s, is depicted as one ugly cauldron of ignorance, poverty, drugs, guns and those who would profit from the unholy mix. The Wershe family is the microcosmic example, with all the above-noted symptoms a driving factor in their lives. The aberrance of thought is frightful. In one scene, when Rick, superbly exacted by Richie Merritt, tries to talk dad into forsaking gun sales for drug hustling, Matthew McConaughey's abashed Richard Wershe Sr. responds that guns are protected by the Constitution, whereas there's no mention of drugs.
 
Trying to navigate his way through adolescence in the den of iniquity that is the Detroit ghetto, guided only by a dad that deals guns out of his car trunk and the unsavory drug kingpins he has fallen in with, Rick is soon rubbing elbows with Detroit's so-called legitimate power structure. Faustian alliances both elective and forced are struck. Thus it only makes sense that the FBI, seeing the opportunity to worm its way into the perfidious web of crime through its weakest link, extorts our boy. They have something on dad. What's a loyal son to do?
 
If you were already of the mindset that we regular folks are helpless at the hands of the moneyed interests both above and below ground, who are of course in cahoots, this film will throw further fuel on your fire of disgruntlement. Making it worse, we realize that beyond all the relevance and metaphors, the treachery depicted continues a tradition of keeping the poor just where they are: doing the fat cats' bidding and resigned, a la "A Tale of Two Cities," to sopping up what little wine might spill from the gentry's broken casks.
 
Alas, only the style and outward look of socioeconomic exploitation changes. The same goes for the justice system in its perennial tug of war between what's ethically correct and what those powers that be say is right. No amount of popcorn can make the sad truth less bitter. But in a cinema equivalent of graffiti, "White Boy Rick" unapologetically emblazons it all across the screen  perhaps challenging us Americans to do something about it.
 
"White Boy Rick," rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Yann Demange and stars Matthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt and Bel Powley. Running time: 111 minutes
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