White Boy Rick (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
One might expect that telling the story of Richard “Rick” Wershe Jr., the youngest FBI informant in history at fourteen years of age who later became a drug dealer, would be compelling, but the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller chooses to traverse the standard tracks of a biographical drama. What results is a marginally interesting story—precisely because of the subject’s age and as a caucasian in a mostly black neighborhood—but with such generic rhythm and beat, it becomes apparent a third of the way through that the same story could have been told better, smarter, and more forcefully by writers who dare to turn the genre’s format inside out and upside down. Like the subject himself, the film is a waste of potential.
The central performances is the film’s greatest asset. Richie Merritt has a bright future ahead of him should he choose to continue playing roles that have meat on them as he does here. As White Boy Rick, he is convincing as a desperate young man who is so sick of being poor that he convinces himself that the only way to get out of it is to sell drugs—make money fast and all problems would flitter away. Supporting Merrit is Matthew McConaughey who plays Rick’s blue-collar father, under the magnifying glass of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane) for selling illegal firearms, who dreams of opening a video store someday.
When Merritt and McConaughey are front and center together, they prove to share great chemistry; they are convincing as father and son who are drowning and desperate to get out of the water. At the same time, they recognize that they are not the only ones in mortal danger. There is the cocaine-addicted sister and daughter (Bel Powley) who refuses to come home. I wished that the screenplay had honed in on the father-son relationship because there are a few scenes in the second hour that are so powerful, the viewer is likely to ponder about his or her relationship with his or her parents, regardless of one’s current standing. In a way, the writers have two tasks—one obvious and the other more subtle: to tell Rick’s story, specifically as an informant and a dealer, and to communicate the universality of parent-child relationships.
Less intriguing is the telling of Rick’s ascent toward the inner circle of a local drug dealer (YG). Although it appears that Rick has forged friendships within the group, it holds no importance for the audience when he refers to them as people with whom he cares about. The reason is because not one is developed, particularly Boo, not even on a skeletal level. It is strange because Boo is supposed be the subject’s best friend. The friend is portrayed by RJ Cyler who is no stranger when it comes to creating characters who are easy to care for or be curious about. The screenplay, too, relies too often on black stereotypes; would it have been too much to present some exceptions?
In the middle of “White Boy Rick,” directed by Yann Demange, is supposed to be a story of an injustice—a juvenile (although not in Michigan, one of only four states in the United States where seventeen-year-olds are tried as adults for criminal offenses) with whom the FBI took advantage of. Yet, curiously, the film invokes minimal outrage. Although vintage cars, poverty mixed with ennui, and the hopelessness of mid-1980s Detroit are alive, the drama is undercooked.
★★ / ★★★★
Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is deemed fit by his psychiatrist to be released from a mental hospital so his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), comes to pick him up. Over lunch, Kaylie tells Tim that she has found it—the antique mirror that ruined their family eleven years ago—and the time has come for them to fulfill their promise.
Director Mike Flanagan has shaped one of the most effective and creative horror independent pictures in the past five years with “Absentia,” about two sisters and a tunnel with terrible secrets. In a way, “Oculus” follows a similar skeletal framework in that it is about a brother-sister pair and a mysterious, possibly sinister, object. The siblings in both films are separated by time and space. The latter, however, pales in comparison because its premise never moves beyond its structural conceit.
While it is always daring that a horror film is injected with dramatic elements through a parallel storytelling, the present and the past melting through one another like milky memories, much of the tension is sacrificed. A predictable pattern is created. An example is a would-be scary scene involves Kaylie seeing a supernatural figure and the camera quickly cutting to this entity in order to get a reaction from the audience. When the camera returns to the protagonist, we now see her younger self (Annalise Basso) which means we are transported to the past. There is screaming and hullabaloo around the house. About two minutes later, we are transported to the present. This gets exhausting after a while.
The mistake is placing more emphasis on the past. Obviously, the two children, although traumatized, made it through their terrible ordeal. Early in the picture we are told that their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) are dead. Thus, it becomes a matter of simply waiting to see when the parents will die. We are even informed how they will die. With the exception of the strange mirror, there is very little mystery left. Why is the focus not on the present? More importantly, since the mirror is also a character, with the exception of Kaylie going over its owners’ track records throughout four centuries, why are we not provided more information about it?
Although the picture draws some inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” in terms of imagery, the father’s personal work space and how he sits in front of the computer all day, what Flanagan should have taken away from Kubrick’s work is how to establish an increasing sense of impending doom. The 1980 classic, also telling a supernatural story, consists of consistently high-risk and very calculated rising action. This one, however, barely gets off the ground. Because it gets stuck—or is willing to get stuck—in trickeries involving perspectives and memory, the dangers and repercussions rarely come off as tangible. I found it gimmicky and off-putting.
The supernatural figures look uninspired. Are ghosts with lights emanating from their eyes supposed to be scary? It certainly did not work for me. Instead, I thought about how similar images worked better in movies like Anton Leader’s “Children of the Damned” and John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned.”
It is clear that the director, who also helmed the screenplay with Jeff Howard, has not found a way to turn his inspirations into his own. What results is a mediocre film with some good ideas but is only decent during the first twenty minutes because a hypothesis is presented. Kaylie’s goal is to gather physical evidence that a supernatural entity is responsible for destroying her family. I would have liked to have seen that movie because it offers a classic template for good old-fashioned scares.