WHITE BOY RICK
starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jonathan Majors, Richie Merritt
written by Andy Weiss and Logan & Noah Miller
directed by Yann Demange
starring Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin
written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
by Walter Chaw Yann Demange's follow-up to his bruising, brilliant '71 is this ersatz Donnie Brasco true-crime epic. White Boy Rick details the rise and fall of underage drug kingpin/FBI informant Richard Wershe, Jr. (Richie Merritt--excellent), dubbed "white boy" by the black Detroit gang into which he inculcates himself as first a sort of mascot, then trusted lieutenant, then deep-cover betrayer, then ultimate usurper. White Boy Rick establishes Demange firmly as a formidable technical director. A scene set in a roller disco circa 1984 is as beautiful, lyrical, and effortless an evocation (and affectionate amplification) of time and space as the Cornelius Bros and Sister Rose dance sequence from BlacKkKlansman. A sudden spinout on an icy road later on carries with it the harsh kinetic immediacy and strong knowledge of space of Demange's '71. The film looks right and feels right. There's a scene at a drive-in where Rick takes a date to watch Footloose: a film that couldn't possibly be more alien to Rick's reality. Crucially, White Boy Rick behaves in the right way, too, demonstrating restraint when appropriate, naturalism where appropriate, and expressionism, especially in a sequence where Rick's junkie sister Dawn (Bel Powley, also excellent) is taken from a crackhouse against her will down a red-lit corridor strobed with shadows.
There's nothing very surprising about Rick's rise and criminal aspirations. A lot of it plays like Goodfellas in its intoxication with the things that money will buy you in Vegas, for instance, or like Carlito's Way as it details the complicated in-fighting and corporate manoeuvring that defines this thing of ours. What's different is the extent to which White Boy Rick is interested in the subsistence-level-and-worse losers Henry Hill disparages. Rick Sr. is a basement-level--literally--licensed gun dealer who rips off rednecks at gun shows in order to machine silencers for them and thus upsell the "fries" to street criminals wanting to look tricked-out in custom armouries. He teaches Junior the art of those deals because it's the only thing he knows to teach his children. He says at one point that everything is going well and Rick Jr. says, "Your daughter is a junkie and I'm shitting into a bag." Senior, unflappable, replies that he's always been a glass-half-full kind of guy. Later, when the FBI is trying to recruit Rick to be their rat, they buy him a burger. Rick asks if there are fries. There's something touching about the idea that this child has learned that adding "fries" to an illegal gun deal can increase profits, but still wants fries to go with his burger. As the movie begins in 1984, he's only fourteen. A lot happens in the film, little of it shocking, but it's punctuated consistently throughout with the idea of what this culture considers to be winners and what it knows to be losers. It has everything to do with the status and material that money can buy. Nothing else matters. There's no "getting made" in Curry's gang. But there is a moment where he buys Rick a horrible tuxedo so that Rick will have something to wear to Curry's wedding, which cements their relationship.
There's too much fat on White Boy Rick, alas. The characters, for instance, of his doddering grandparents (Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie) provide some amusing moments but feel like padding. But when it's talking about how the system is hardwired against the poor, or about how there's actually a caste system in the United States that's essentially rigid, it becomes clear what the Paris-born but London-raised Demange saw in this American tale. He gets at it through the failed, underfunded educational system that won't let Rick go back to school after he's shot because he's a threat to be shot again; through the failed gun-control debate that would allow a fourteen-year-old easier access to Egyptian AK-47s than cigarettes or R-rated movies; through the humiliation of masculinity that robs an entire class of opportunity and access while films that try to address it are called "poverty porn" and disdained for their perceived insensitivity. When Rick is visited by his dad in the pen near the end of the film, he talks to Rick about how he always believed that his son would do bigger and better things than he did--he believes in the ingrained, American notion that each new generation can exceed the last through hard work and ingenuity, when it's far more likely that every generation is held back by the same lack of opportunity as the previous. White Boy Rick is about how capitalism has failed, the middle class has imploded, and the lowest classes are left to claw and murder each other for whatever scraps fall to them.
Winner of this year's Palme d'or, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters deals with the exact same issues of families, impoverishment, and lawlessness: the failure of capitalism, the implosion of the middle class, the ineffectiveness-to-malignance and prejudice of law enforcement. It opens with the father-and-son shoplifting team of Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi), who, through a series of signals and timed passes, proceed to fill a backpack with a shopping list at the grocery. Kore-eda shoots it as a bonding experience, a lark. On their way home, Osamu stops at a fried cake vendor and buys a few to bring to the rest of the family. The mom is Nobuyo (Ando Sakura), her sister is gorgeous Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who has a gig as a sex worker in a peepshow where rows of schoolgirl-clad women bump desultorily against one-way glass, and the matriarch is Katsue (Kirin Kiki). One night, they find a little neighbour girl left outside her house in the cold. Five-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) ends up spending the night, and then another, and then she's theirs and they love her and for the longest time, no one misses her. But then someone does, and the cracks begin to show in Osamu and Shota's "harmless" criminal enterprises. Before you know it, Shoplifters starts spilling its secrets.
Kore-eda's films are each tests of the ties that bind people through the capriciousness of the day-to-day. He is a cartographer of interpersonal dynamics. Nobuyo burns something that proves a painful reminder for little Yuri, ritualistically, in a metal bucket, and then hugs her close and says that people who love each other don't beat each other, they do this: and she hugs her again. Yuri looks at her, puts her hand to Nobuyo's face and Nobuyo lets her keep it there. It's a gesture she repeats later in the film with someone else, and Kore-eda instructs us to compare the responses. Intimacy in his films is never about sex (though there is sex in his films), rather it's about the importance of human contact in all its forms and complexities. This household of five now exists in a tiny, cluttered space loaded with loot and garbage. Shota puts the groceries in a basket on a shelf and in a tiny background gesture, Kore-eda makes it clear that there's an organizing principle at work. He takes pains to show the family doing their laundry, showering in a cramped space by dumping water over themselves, or squeezing into a tiled box for a soak. They're desperately poor--and most of their conversations revolve around how to get money or work or things they can steal without hurting anyone--but they're not animals, after all. They love one another, unconditionally. Grandma says she's lucky because with her late husband's pension, they can't afford not to have her stay with them, thus, she hopes, she'll avoid a lonesome death. When they have a day at the beach, Osamu takes Shota out in the surf and teases that he caught Shota checking out some boobs. He asks if he wakes with an erection sometimes and reassures the boy that it's natural. "Feel better?" he asks, and Shota, all smiles, says that he does. He'd been worried he was sick.
Shoplifters is so gently observed and generous and careful with its characters that when misfortune finally befalls this family group, it's almost unbearable to watch. The strength of their bonds, to a one, is tested. The miracle of the film is that it's entirely non-didactic--there's no agenda being pushed, not even the caste/poverty angle, although Osamu does echo White Boy Rick's dad when he says that shoplifting was the only survival skill he had to teach Shota. Rather, Shoplifters is merely about the unbearable burden of being human, of maintaining relationships and nurturing them, of valuing strengths and forgiving weaknesses because you've made the commitment to do so. It's a debt you only owe to family; whether that family is blood or circumstance makes no difference at all. It's a tale of losers elevated by their simple grace into examples to which to aspire. Shoplifters bears an interesting comparison to Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, a horror film of unusual potency that at the end is really only about the vows you make to the people you love; no matter the skin you leave, you endure the troubles, yes, minute-by-minute for as long as all of you shall live. We survived our pre-history this way. We're evolved to be a community. It's the only way we can survive when the system is hardwired against us.