It’s especially ambitious of the Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe, who made the last two Captain America and Avengers movies) to follow up literally the biggest movies ever made with a film about a young war veteran suffering from PTSD and turning to hard drugs to cover up the noises in his head. Granted, Cherry is no ordinary personal story of suffering and survival. It’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long and also throws in a love story, a host of seedy supporting players, an extended bootcamp segment, and a full-time career change into bank robbery (mostly to have money to buy drugs, but you probably figured that out already). The truth is, Cherry is too much movie for its own good, and as a result, none of its many parts really congeal enough to result in satisfying storytelling, despite a sensational lead performance by Tom Holland (taking a break from playing Spider-Man, but not breaking from filmmakers he’s worked with very recently).
Taken from the best-selling novel by Nico Walker (adapted by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg), Holland’s character is never given a name (I’m guessing that’s in the name of making his struggles seem universal), but he begins the film by falling in love with Emily (Ciara Bravo). She starts by acting somewhat distant with him, but that only pulls him in more until he’s hooked for good. Just as things begin to get serious, she announces that she’s going to college far away, and he’s so crushed by the prospect of being without her that he enlists in the Army for two years just as she changes her mind about going away, leaving her alone in their dead-end Ohio town. Holland becomes a medic, and since the film is set shortly after 9/11, he heads off to Iraq and sees his closest friends wiped out in an IED attack—an event that devastates our protagonist and sets the course for the rest of his life.
I’m blowing through these story highlights, but the film takes its sweet time, with a great deal of it spent watching Holland in basic training, hanging out and talking shit with his buddies in Iraq, and his long recovery and homecoming. He firmly believes that the love of a good woman and maybe the occasional drink will ground him, but that doesn’t happen. His undiagnosed PTSD pushes him into heroin addiction, which in turn brings Emily to the addiction as well. As a result, they empty their bank accounts, leading Holland to rob a bank to pay off his hilarious but deadly serious dealer, nicknamed Pills & Coke (Jack Reynor), who in turns answers to a supplier named Black (Daniel R. Hall, whose face we never see in focus, making him all the more menacing).
I’ve seen so many films about junkies and veterans suffering from PTSD, I’m not sure Cherry adds anything new to the conversation. The final-act bank robbery elements add a new wrinkle to this familiar story, and the result adds much-needed suspense and even a bit of action to the occasion. Holland’s desperation is palpable, and his stellar performance carries and expands a great deal of the screenplay in places where the written words simply don’t. But even Holland’s work here can’t save the film from falling victim to simply having too much story. With an actor this strong, you don’t need to drown him in plot the way Cherry does. And in this case, the actor made me care about the film more than his character. Bravo also performs a remarkable transformation, from squeaky-clean school girl to addict in a relatively short timeframe, and quite convincingly.
The intent of Cherry far exceeds the execution, and that does count for something. Sadly, it doesn’t change this from near-miss review of the film. There are a handful of excellent moments scattered throughout, but the full movie feels slapped together and wholly inconsistent (the occasional flash forward to show us Holland during his final bank job are so unnecessary and stop the momentum of the movie). I laughed here and there at some of the darkly humorous parts of the story, usually involving Holland’s drug-dealing or -taking friends, but I rarely felt emotionally gripped by what I was seeing, and a film like this needs that to keep breath in its lungs. I’m not even sure an Army medic could make that happen.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and will stream on Apple TV+ on March 12.
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