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War is hell … and so is coming home – ‘Cherry’

March 15, 2021
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Hollywood has long been fascinated with soldiers’ stories. Movies about soldiers, whether they’re on the battlefield or off it, have been part of the cinema since the beginnings of the medium. In the early days, those films tended toward the celebratory and/or laudatory, but more recent fare has leaned into deconstructing the physical and psychological impact of men going to war.

“Cherry,” the new film from Joe and Anthony Russo, is the latest in a long line of films exploring what happens to those who are broken by war and then dropped back into their old lives without anyone helping them to repair themselves. Adapted by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg from Nico Walker’s acclaimed 2018 novel of the same name and currently available via Apple TV+, it’s a story of one man’s struggles to deal with the aftermath of his choices – an aftermath that leads him into a seedy and unsafe world of addiction and crime.

It’s an intense and unwavering film, one that seeks to paint an unvarnished portrait of the pain of a young man left behind by the system that used him up. It is also a film not without issues, a story whose pacing is bumpy and whose character motivations are sometimes murky. All in all, an uneven but still worthwhile viewing experience.

Our unnamed narrator (Tom Holland, “Chaos Walking”) – eventually nicknamed “Cherry” for reasons that will be apparent in the moment – is attending college in his Ohio hometown. He has a love-at-first-sight moment with a classmate named Emily (Ciara Bravo, TV’s “A Teacher”); the initial infatuation quickly blossoms into a relationship. However, when Cherry offers up an affirmation of his love, she opts to flee, telling him that she will be moving to Montreal for school.

Heartbroken and adrift, he decides to enlist in the military with the intention of becoming a medic. Too late, Emily realizes she’s making a mistake and confesses her love to Cherry. It’s too late for him to get out of going, but Emily wants to wait for him; the two marry at City Hall before he ships out.

His time in the Middle East is intense and traumatic; he’s confronted with numerous horrible experiences – experiences that he’s never given the proper time and space to process. Instead, he must simply press onward, even when he’s forced to watch people close to him badly hurt and even killed.

Cherry suffers from significant PTSD upon his discharge and return stateside. He’s prescribed OxyContin to deal with his pain, but with little guidance, he winds up abusing the drug. His drug issues cause strain in his marriage, leading Emily to also venture into the realm of drug use. It isn’t long before the scope of their opioid abuse expands to include heroin.

Of course, addiction can lead to a lot of bad and hurtful choices. Even as Cherry and Emily spiral downward, they must deal with the simple reality that drugs cost money. But when a favor done for their local dealer – a bro-type they know only as Pills & Coke (Jack Reynor, “Midsommar”) – goes horribly awry, they find themselves deep in debt. To save himself and Emily, Cherry must take extreme action.

Criminal action.

Of course, actions have consequences – Cherry’s are no exception. And so he finds himself in a situation where he must pay for not only his own crimes, but suffer the aftermath of the crimes committed against him by a system ill-equipped to give him the help that he needs.

There’s more here – “Cherry” has a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours – but the winding road of the film’s internal storyline is best left to unspool without comment. It meanders at times, with some stretches where the pacing feels downright lethargic, though it may well be that a deliberate slowness is what the Russos were looking for.

I say that because there’s no arguing against the aesthetic deliberation exercised by the directors. Whether it’s the chapter heading device used to divide the film into parts or the liberal use of stylized and slightly unconventional shot angles or – in a personal favorite touch – the use of outside imagery to accentuate Cherry’s dissociation from the world around him; we see nameplates and nametags for characters named simply “Whomever” and businesses featuring reductive and vague (and often expletive-ridden) signage. It’s a sharp, bold choice that serves as shorthand for putting us in Cherry’s head.

That said, the medium occasionally muddies the message. It seems that there’s a lot that this film seeks to say, but by trying to comment on so many aspects of Cherry’s post-war world, we lose some of the specificity that marks the movie when it is at its best (though if you wanted to argue that it all springs from the unreliability of Cherry’s perspective, I’d be willing to listen).

It’s a big swing from Holland, who is clearly hoping to get out in front of the long shadow cast by Spider-Man and the MCU. It’s a generally successful one, though his generally boyish look makes it a bit tougher to buy him in a role like this one. Still, it’s a pretty good turn from him. Bravo is good as well, though her role feels a bit thankless; at times, she almost feels more like a plot device than a fully-realized character. There are some strong supporting performances – the very talented Forrest Goodluck is great as Cherry’s childhood best friend, while we get quality turns from Reynor and Michael Gandolfini as well – along the way as well.

“Cherry” is a flawed film, one that doesn’t reach the heights of its obvious ambition. There’s too much air in it – shaving 10 minutes off could make all the difference – and thematically, it tries to do much, which paradoxically means that it never says enough. However, those flaws aren’t enough to outweigh the quality performances and thoughtful aesthetic choices. It wins some battles, though perhaps not quite enough to win the war.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 15 March 2021 10:10

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