White Boy Rick (2018)

The opening shot of White Boy Rick is of a child plunging their hand into a popcorn maker for a snack, then running onto a gun show floor room to lead the audience to a character whose life’s dream is to sell enough guns to open a VHS rental store. Everything you need to know about the film’s balance between thematic daringness & easy entertainment value is contained in that introduction. Based on the true story of a white teenager in 1980s Detroit who was recruited as an FBI informant before transforming into a kingpin drug dealer on his own, White Boy Rick is extremely well-behaved in its style & structure as a biopic, approximating what Good Time might have felt like if it were a mid-90s VHS rental at Blockbuster instead of a modern stylistic freak-out. This is the kind of movie your aunts & uncles are asking for when they say they just want “a good story” without all the artsy-fartsy stuff getting in the way, the kind best enjoyed on the couch with a bowl of microwave popcorn. The story it tells lends itself to potentially complex, challenging themes of legal corruption, the failed War on Drugs, white privilege, and the cycles of poverty, but the movie is much less interested in slowing down to pick apart those topics than it is in repeatedly asking “Isn’t this crazy?” as it crams in every possible detail from its (admittedly crazy) true-life story. Director Yann Demange & his team of three credited screenwriters seemingly decided that the real “White Boy” Rick Wershe’s life story was entertainingly absurd enough on its own to need no further embellishment or thematic examination beyond being presented as-is in dramatization, that the movie practically makes itself. They’re not wrong.

Like with most well-behaved biopics, White Boy Rick’s greatest faults result from the compulsion to cram every possible real-life detail into a rigid two-hour structure that can barely contain it all. It’s understandable why the film’s small screenwriter army would indulge in that compulsion here, as Rick Wershe’s life between the ages of 14 to 17 in mid-80s Detroit was wild to the point of incredulity. In just three years, he embodied a range of functions within the “Just Say No” Reagan crack epidemic era as varied as arms dealer, drug kingpin, undercover narc, and convicted criminal – all before becoming a legal adult. It’s the kind of life story that makes for a great journalism piece (and has in this 2014 Atavist Magazine profile) but is overwhelming to tackle in full in under two hours of screen-time. The result of that information-compression is a drama too rushed to make an emotional impact, one that must rely on archetypes like The Stoic Drug Dealer With A Hidden Temper & The Tragic Cold-Turkey Junkie to move its story along at a manageable pace. Anyone looking for White Boy Rick to examine the corruption & deep-seated racism of a legal system that would elevate & protect a white teenager in order to take down a network of poor black people operating in a drug market they helped foster will leave the movie deeply disappointed; it simply doesn’t have the time. Instead, White Boy Rick chases capturing each beyond-belief beat of Rick’s short biography as a big-name hustler, focusing on telling “a good story” instead of a meaningful one. Its thematic material sticks with you about as along as it would take to read a mid-length profile of Ricky over your morning coffee. You only have time to say, “Whoa, that’s crazy” before the movie ushers you along.

What White Boy Rick lacks in thematic complexity it more than makes up for in the humor & specificity of its character work. Newcomer Richie Merritt plays the titular hustler as a sweet, hapless idiot too naïve to fully grasp the severity of the game he’s playing. There’s a quiet tragedy to the way he looks to his older junkie sister for wisdom & life advice, but Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays her as such a feral, inhuman goblin that the character takes on a Jerri Blank-esque humor, however dark. Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie, and RJ Cyler (Power Rangers) all match those siblings’ sweetly pathetic energy in a way that finds intensely uncomfortable comedy in the daily tragedies of urban poverty. White Boy Rick works best when it functions as a Seinfeldian absurdist farce, with self-absorbed, delusional characters yelling at each other over minor grievances like pancakes, dead rats, frozen custard, and Footloose while the world crumbles around them. It’s only through that disarming humor that the drama makes any impact, since the swift brutality of the violence that disrupts it is in harsh juxtaposition. The film plays like a less challenging, non-meta I, Tonya in that way, reveling in the discomfort of finding dark humor in poverty’s violence & absurdity. There’s also an easy beauty to its recreation of mid-80s Detroit sounds & fashion, especially when it gawks at the fur coats, gold chains, and neon lights of the social scene at the local roller rink while Detroit soul & early hip-hop breaks cheerfully blare in the background. The clash of those indulgences against the medically accurate fallout of a gunshot wound or the grim step-by-step process of making & distributing crack is almost jarring enough for White Boy Rick to masquerade as an Important Drama, when it’s truly a character-driven farce.

It’s important to find balance in your movie-going habits. While I understand the urge to champion challenging art like I, Tonya, Good Time, and You Were Never Really Here over the more pedestrian payoffs of this Based On A True Story drama, there’s room in your diet for both. A few eccentric, character-based performances & “a good story” are more than enough to entertain as for-their-own-sake indulgences and there’s something adorably old-fashioned in White Boy Rick’s contentment to not reach any further than that. You can practically smell the popcorn popping & hear the VCR whirring in the background, as it’s incredible this movie wasn’t made in the Blockbuster Video era – both because of its simplistic artistic ambitions and because it’s absurd that Wershe’s life rights weren’t optioned decades sooner.

-Brandon Ledet

Trauma (1993)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Well, here we are, folks. I wrote in my review of Opera that many considered that film to be Dario Argento’s last good movie, although I had also read that Trauma had its fans as well. I was pleasantly surprised by the director’s “Black Cat” segment of Two Evil Eyes, so I was looking forward to Trauma with some reservations but an open mind. On the whole, this 1993 film (released just a year after the director’s cameo in Innocent Blood) has a lot of meritorious elements in its favor and is a decent movie, but throughout the run time I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, so this is where we’re going now.” Although the giallo elements work, for the most part, the movie’s most memorably quality is blandness, although how much of that is intentional or not is unclear.

The film follows Aura (Asia Argento, in one of her earliest film roles and her first time being directed by her father), a sixteen year old girl who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital where she was undergoing treatment for anorexia. She meets David (Christopher Rydell), a TV news graphic artist and former heroin addict, and he befriends her after assuming that her IV feeding tube scars are track marks. Aura is soon recaptured by social services, however, and returned to the home of her parents, renowned mystics who are hosting a séance. Aura’s mother Adriana (Piper Laurie) claims that a spirit named Nicholas has hijacked the ceremony and is claiming that the serial decapitator The Headhunter is present. Aura watches from an upstairs window as her mother and father flee into the rainy night and runs after them, only to discover that The Headhunter has killed them both. She finds David and asks for his help, placing a strain on his relationship with news anchor Grace (Laura Johnson), who eventually calls the hospital and reports Aura so that she is forced to return there. Meanwhile, David’s investigation leads him to learn that (spoilers through the end of this paragraph) The Headhunter’s victims were all medical professionals in attendance on the night that Adriana was giving birth to her second child, a son to be named Nicholas; the doctor (Brad Dourif in what amounts to an extended cameo) insisted on pushing ahead with inducing labor despite inclement weather and intermittent power outages, and when he is startled by a lightning strike with a scalpel in his hand, he accidentally decapitated the baby. The nurses present convince him to use ECT on Adriana to erase her memory of the event, and her husband is complicit in their cover up. Of course, as in so many of Dario Argento’s movies, this repressed memory eventually resurfaces and the murderer seeks out vengeance.

In an interview on the DVD of La Terza madre, Asia Argento discussed the fact that working as a director had given her new insights as an actress, and it shows in the difference between her presence here and there. She is the weak performative link in this movie, but the film’s flaws are not restricted solely to her amateur abilities. Piper Laurie goes over the top here, as she often does, but Adriana Petrescu lacks the grounding that made Margaret White function so well as a sinister mother figure. Brad Dourif’s barely present on screen (and kudos to the editor of the film’s trailer for excising any reference to him, although the fact that his name appears at the top of the DVD box ruins that reveal), and his appearance ends with one of the worst uses of chroma-key effects I’ve seen in my life. That sequence stands out as particularly terrible, especially given how effective the rest of the movie’s decapitated heads, created by effects genius Tom Savini, are. It’s also strange to me that no one in the film seems to have a problem with the adult David’s romantic and ultimately sexual relationship with teenaged Aura is, other than Grace, whose issues are painted as being the result of jealousy rather than concern for the fact that a sixteen year old may be being taken advantage of by a much older beau. The film’s score also leaves much to be desired, especially in the sequences in which the young boy who lives next door to the killer’s home (Cory Garvin) sneaks into the murder house while chasing a butterfly; they feel more like unused tracks from Dennis the Menace than something created with the intent of increasing tension. The killer’s weapon of choice, a kind of bladed garrote, is a neat invention, but there’s too much tonal inconsistency present throughout, and the homages to Argento’s earlier work (especially Profondo rosso) only serve to demonstrate how much this film pales in comparison. I’m also unclear as to why Argento chose to shoot this picture in what he called “featureless Minnesota,” given that it adds to the overall banality of the film’s cinematography, especially given his masterful use of classic architecture and depth of field in his earlier work.

Having said that, this is not a bad movie, just an unmemorable one. For an Argento completist, it’s a movie that I would recommend over Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and the mystery, despite being at times incoherent, works well in spite of its implausibility and absurdity. There are some great visual flourishes as well, especially in Aura’s hallucinatory sequence and in the discovery of the creepy nursery filled with gauzy screens. There’s a laudable attempt to trace the relationships between media, family, and psychological disorders here; it’s misguided and dated in its discussion, but I appreciate that there was an attempt to address this issue, even if the conceptualizations of the root cause of eating disorders is somewhat facile. The scenes set in the mental hospital are also effectively unnerving, even if that trope smacks of ableism when viewed through a modern lens. More than anything, I can tell that this is a movie that suggests a sharp downturn in the director’s work from here on out, even if it is decent within itself.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond