3.5 out of 5 stars

Anyone expecting a reprise of the Russo Brother’s best-known movies (four Marvel Cinematic Universe outings including Avengers: Endgame), are likely to be both shocked and disappointed by Cherry, a film with few heroics but a bizarre jumble of styles and moods linked only by their focus on a single character.

The most obvious comparisons in terms of subject matter might be Iraq-trauma films like Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) or Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), but Cherry reminded me of nothing so much as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). And not only for its matter-of-fact, unmoralising treatment of drugs, but for its atmospheric sense of place, the chaotic juxtaposition of humour and seriousness, and the sheer flashiness. The eponymous Cherry’s comment on drug addiction that “you could kill yourself real slow, but you feel like a million fucking dollars while you do it” could easily come from a Boyle character.

Cherry also has in common with Trainspotting the overwhelming sense of being extremely pleased with itself, to an extent which may put some off. But though this distances us somewhat from the characters (as they’re so obviously in the service of a directorial vision that it’s difficult to quite feel them as real, ironically given that Nico Walker’s well-regarded source novel is highly autobiographical), this long film has a cumulative power that makes it impossible to ignore.

Cherry is divided, with great self-consciousness, into seven parts, introduced by intertitle images soaked in cherry-red. A 2007-set prologue introduces us to Cherry (Tom Holland) robbing a bank, before we flashback to 2002 in ‘Part One’, where he’s at college in Cleveland, Ohio, where he meets and falls quickly in love with Emily (Ciara Bravo), the only other character who’s a constant throughout. Upset when she considers moving away to study in Canada, Cherry enlists in the US Army.

‘Part Two’ takes us through Cherry’s basic training, and if ‘Part One ‘was a fairly straightforward bittersweet romance, this one feels like a surreal, cartoonish farce version of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) with some pitch-black comedic scenes. The insanely aggressive drill sergeants are surely modelled on that classic war film.

‘Part Three’ sees Cherry deployed to Iraq, but although it contains a pivotal scene (the slightly predictable explosion of an IED) we still haven’t reached the heart of the movie. What’s important in this section is how we see the first signs of Cherry’s descent from boyish optimism into a more troubled state. “Suddenly, there was nothing interesting about it anymore,” he says after the IED incident.

Surely this is a dangerous line to put in any film, but Cherry suddenly grows more interesting in ‘Part Four’. Back in Cleveland, our protagonist gets a decent job and resumes life with Emily, but starts to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a doctor’s prescription for OxyContin leads him into drug-addition. The mood is darker now, and so is the lighting, and there are even literal thunderclouds.

By ‘Part Five’ the oxy has become heroin and Emily’s addicted too, so Cherry turns to bank robbery to support their habit, eventually becoming uneasy criminal partners with a dealer known only as Pills and Coke (Jack Reynor). But the tone for a while is less depressive than in the previous section—at least from the perspective of Cherry and Emily, drugs are quite a happy solution, just as in Trainspotting—though it soon grows grimmer again. In a hospital waiting room with Emily’s mum, Cherry himself looks like a corpse; stabbing himself with a syringe, desperate to feel something.

An epilogue covering many years after 2007 provides an impressionistic montage of Cherry’s years in prison. The long pans across different elements of his life might seem a hasty way to wrap up such a long period, but it’s perhaps the most original section of Cherry, and it’s necessary in narrative terms to take us to an ending which just might be resolving into optimism again.

Calling Cherry a film of ups and downs is an understatement, and the visual style echoes this rollercoaster range of different tones. The photography can be incredibly mobile, or static, there are jump cuts, tricks with grading, and lots of bird’s eye views. There’s also slo-mo and cuts to scenes in minor characters’ pasts, outside of the primary narrative, to illustrate points made by the script. The Iraq section starts with a ballet of military vehicles and planes. Showing off less, and therefore more helpful to the drama, are well-chosen locations, especially the mundane, not-quite-grim but far-from-uplifting Cleveland streets.

Inevitably the Russo’s mannered direction almost overwhelms the performances, though Bravo shines as Emily. In the earlier sequences when the couple are still young she’s an intriguing mixture; open yet careful, mature yet not entirely, and you can tell she’s been hurt before. Later, Bravo engineers a subtle but effective transformation within the character, becoming harder and tougher, and you wonder if she just might love heroin more than she loves Cherry.

Holland, by contrast, is disappointingly bland for much of the film (especially given that the character’s presented as both sensitive and intelligent), though he too acquires some depth once PTSD and drugs come into the story.

Reynor is highly watchable as Pills and Coke, his confidence not quite concealing his dread of Mr Black (Daniel R. Hill, a never-fully-seen drug dealer higher up the Cleveland food chain, whose monstrous and ominous presence may represent everything in the world that’s threatening to the fragile Cherry). Forrest Goodluck is sadly plausible as Lightfoot, a Native American dealt no luck by life who ends up trying to assist Cherry in his bank-robbing escapades, and the excellent Iraqi actor Suhail Dabbach appears in a small role as the manager of a restaurant where the young Cherry is briefly employed.

None of these, however, has nearly as much impact as the directorial style, which can distance us from incidents as much as from characters. For example, the IED explosion in Iraq is not nearly as awful as it should be, because everything surrounding it’s been so obviously part of a movie rather than a glimpse of reality. Bitterly sarcastic bank signage (Credit None, Shitty Bank) makes its point well enough, but again might work against its intention: the Russo’s are trying to underline how relevant their movie is to real Americans today, but the unrealism of these business names also makes it harder to see Cherry and Emily as examples of those real people.

It is, therefore, left largely up to the script rather than the actors to communicate the story and character development, and here again there’s quite a bit of contrivance: not just the extensive voiceover, but speech aimed directly to the camera. It’s written with originality and avoids clichés, however. 

Unfortunately, that can’t always be said of Cherry’s music. Excerpts from Puccini’s Tosca at two key moments would work well enough if high operatic drama hadn’t been employed this way so often before. The prolific Henry Jackman wrote the original soundtrack, ranging from polite quasi-classical strings to Glassian minimalism, and some Van Morrison songs (among others) are also well-used.

Cherry is a hugely ambitious film. At moments it seems on the verge of profundity, though it never quite gets there, and it seems to be genuinely engaged with the issues it handles. But, though technically accomplished, it feel more like a showreel for the Russo’s ability to work outside of the comic-book genre they’ve made their name. And while it’s difficult to blame them for that, this does severely erode its ability to connect with the audience on an empathetic, emotional level.

All the same, even if it doesn’t succeed, it’s impactful in a strange and passionate way. Though few will love it and some will surely hate it, Cherry might end up being seen as one of those films that was almost great… if only its makers hadn’t given into the temptation of overdoing things.

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USA | 2021 | 142 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

directors: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo.
writers: Angela Russo-Otstot & Jessica Goldberg (based on the novel by Nico Walker).
starring: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli & Jeff Wahlberg.