The film opens to an Ohio gun show in 1986. Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) is examining some AK-47s and negotiating a price with the dealer. He notices that the gun has details consistent with Egyptian-made AK-47s, unlike the Russian-made ones the dealer claims he’s selling. He calls his father, Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) (we’ll call him Richard), over to confirm his suspicions and they blackmail the dealer into giving them a heavy discount in exchange for not ratting him out and costing him his license.
The father and son then head home to Detroit. Richard is talking about how they’re both lions in a world of sheep. Richard is a small-time arms dealer who dreams of opening a video store one day. Rick is his 15-year-old son who seems to just go with the flow. When they return home, they see another car parked in their driveway. Both Richard and Rick recognize it as Ty’s car. They get out of the car, and Richard pulls out one of the AK-47s and bursts in the house to his daughter, Dawn (Rick’s older sister), making out with her boyfriend, Ty. Richard immediately guesses she’s high and kicks Ty out of the house, with Dawn (Bel Powley) running out of the house to chase after him in her underwear. Their grandparents (who live right across the street) pull up just in time to see the whole event. Richard calms the situation down, and they go out for custard.
Later that night, Richard is finishing up crafting silencers for the AK-47s and explaining to Rick about the concept of “up-selling.” Rick uses this new knowledge to sell the AK-47s to some local gang members that he’s familiar with. He makes a huge profit by up-selling them on the silencers and earns some respect from the gang’s leader, Johnny Curry. Rick starts hanging with them and partying at a local roller rink that is frequented by the gang and corrupt cops.
Early the next morning, Rick is woken up by Dawn, who tells him that she’s leaving. Rick correctly guesses that she’s going to live with Ty and tries to convince her to stay and leave Ty. Dawn leaves anyway and gives her a number to contact her, telling him not to give it to their Dad. However, Richard witnesses her leaving and stares out the window as she and Ty drive away. Later on, Richard is being hassled by the FBI, as his weapons are ending up in the hands of the gang members around town. FBI agents Alexandra (“Alex”) and Frank tell him they know about his illegally-made silencers and will catch him sooner or later. They ask Rick if he knows anything about the gang members, but Rick keeps quiet and only informs them that the gang members they pictured are dead.
That afternoon, Rick is hanging out with the gang while they pick out tuxes for Curry’s upcoming wedding to the mayor’s niece, Cathy. Curry talks to Rick about respect and shows that he’s earned his by telling Rick to try on a tux, subtly inviting him to his wedding. Rick attends the wedding and meets Art Derrick, a drug kingpin from Miami. On their way home from the wedding, Rick is riding with his friends from the gang, Nugg, Boo, Freaky Steve, and Ed when they happen on a few girls from their school. Rick calls out to one of them, Brenda Moore, who happens to be his crush from school, and asks them if they want to join them. The girls go with them to a drive-in movie theater, and Rick gets intimate with Brenda.
A few days later, Rick is returning home from a night out and sees a stuffed duck on the side of the road. He takes it with him as a gift for his sister but is then approached by a vehicle, whose passengers reveal themselves to be the FBI agents from before along with a narcotics police officer. They tell him that the silenced AK-47s he sold to the gang were used to commit a murder and they can use that to arrest his Dad unless Rick cooperates by making drug purchases so they can gather evidence against the gang. Rick, being backed into a corner, agrees to cooperate. He picks up some crack cocaine from a local dealer and delivers it back to the agents. After several times, the agents then hand him a brick of cocaine and tell him to sell it in order to better blend in with the gang crowd (people in Detroit who only buy and don’t appear to be undercover cops). They tell him he can keep whatever money he makes, and Rick sells the cocaine and pockets $4,000.
Later on, Curry confronts Rick with the knowledge that he’s been selling cocaine to his customers. He warns Rick to be more transparent with him and allows him to sell with his other dealers, provided he gets his customary cut. After a few months, Rick is living the good life with the gang, even traveling to Vegas for a boxing title fight. Curry had been promised by one his customers, Leon, that he had set him and his crew up in Vegas with ringside seats and would have his money by the time they got back. When they showed up to the fight, they were denied, as Leon had given the tickets to another gang leader. After the fight, everyone went to an after-party, and the other gang leader flaunted in front of Curry, who responded by beating him to death with a champagne bottle.
When Rick and the gang returned from Vegas, Curry sent two of his men to kill Leon at his house. However, Leon left shortly before they arrived and when the two gang members opened fire on the house from outside, a bullet hit one of Leon’s young sons, killing him. This made big news, and now police were rounding up anyone who possessed AK-47s. The gang and even Richard were all getting rid of the ones they had. Curry gathered his gang together, including Rick, and let them know that they had to be extremely careful now and that he would do whatever it took to stay out of prison. When Rick returned home, Richard was just leaving and told him that he had been given a goldfish as a gift from one of his customers. An hour later, Rick was looking at the fish when his friend and fellow gang members, Nugg, came to the house. Rick got him a soda, but when he turned around Nugg shot him in the stomach and fled. Rick was saved through a long surgery and was able to recover fully, albeit slowly. In the hospital, Rick was listed under a fake name for his protection, and the FBI agents let him know that because of his help, they were able to take down Curry and most of his crew.
Later, Rick and Richard were driving home and began talking again about opening a video store. Rick expressed his doubts that they would ever do anything with their lives and Richard almost crashed the car while arguing back. Luckily, they were both uninjured, and Rick pleaded with his Dad to let him become a cocaine dealer again so that they could finally have a good life. Richard was initially against it, but eventually relented and Rick began to sell cocaine on the streets, making a steady stream of big money.
A short time later, Rick and Richard approached a house filled with drug users and found Dawn asleep in one of the rooms. Rick told her they were taking her home and she kicked and screamed the whole way. They locked her in her room back home while she detoxed from the drugs she was on. While difficult in the beginning, she eventually made a full recovery after several days. After months of selling cocaine, Rick had earned more than enough money to make his Dad’s dream come true, and Richard was able to open up a video store.
The next morning, Rick answers a knock at the door to find a little kid who tells him that his sister, Brenda, just had a baby and that it’s Rick’s. Rick and Richard travel to Brenda’s house to meet Rick’s daughter, Keisha, and they take turns holding her. A few days later, Rick talks with Curry’s wife, Cathy, at the roller rink and they eventually go back to her place. Cathy tells Rick that if Curry had been smart and only trusted the people she put him in contact with, he wouldn’t have gone to prison and left her alone. She and Rick then have sex.
During the next year, FBI agents storm Rick’s house and arrest Rick and Richard. Rick is held on drug possession with intent distribute, and since he had more than 8 grams, it would be for a life-sentence in prison. They later speak with Alex and Frank, who tell them that the FBI will publicly deny any relationship with Rick, but will try to get his sentence reduced if he cooperates on one of last informant task. Rick has Cathy help him out with a large shipment of cocaine and the FBI raid the deal and arrest everyone involved. Unfortunately, they announce Rick’s name on television as having been the instigator of the bust, putting him in danger. At his court hearing, the jury concludes that Rick is guilty and the judge gives him the full life-sentence in prison. Richard confronts Alex and Frank, and they tell him that they never made any promises for Rick and that it’s over.
A year goes by, and Dawn and Richard visit Rick in prison along with Rick’s daughter Keisha. Rick tells Dawn to keep showing Keisha his picture every night. Richard then talks to him about his case and lets him know the mandatory life-sentence for drug offenses might be overturned soon. Rick laments that his life over now that he’s in prison and Richard tears up and apologizes for not being able to give him an easy life like he wanted to. Rick is then led back to his cell and Richard, Dawn, and Keisha leave to go home.
The credits reveal that Rick stayed in prison for over 30 years, holding the record for the longest prison term for a non-violent offender in the state of Michigan. He was finally released on parole in 2017. His father, Richard, passed away in 2014. His daughter, Keisha, is now happily married with two sons. A voice recording of the real Rick Wershe Jr. plays in the background, with him stating that nobody thought he should really be in prison, but that he was feeling happy and hopeful.
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