Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers behind the mega-successful Avengers: Endgame, are perhaps the least likely directors to take on Nico Walker’s novel Cherry. The story is about a college dropout turned army medic who returns to the US after a horrific tour in Iraq and spirals into drugs and crime. The Russo Brothers are not subtle directors, and the nuance missing in their new film Cherry is immense.
Cherry is a heavy-stylized and frequently predictable story that struggles to find grounded moments that warrant such a large production budget ($40 Million). From the start, an unnecessary voiceover narrates exactly what appears on the screen and continues throughout the film to no effect. At some points, the narration belies what is on the screen, and it becomes challenging to interpret the truth. The emotional connection with our lead, Cherry, is ultimately lost to storytelling that wants us to see what is in the directors’ minds rather than our protagonist. Intimacy is sacrificed for slow-motion action sequences, and emotion is forced rather than earned.
The directors favor stylizing each scene creatively at the expense of telling this man’s story, and it’s a decision that adversely impacts the entire film.
The story is told in chapters and begins with a prologue in 2007. Cherry (Tom Holland), which is his assumed name because the character doesn’t have one, walks out of his house, drives to a bank, and holds a gun to the teller’s face as he demands her take out cash from the drawer. It’s assumed that this is rock bottom, but the voiceover tells us so anyway. Part 1 is Cherry’s college years, where he meets the charming Emily (Ciara Bravo), and the two quickly become smitten with each other.
Cherry works a series of jobs while studying, but when Emily reveals that she wants to study in Montreal, he enlists in the armed forces. After she decides against the trip, Cherry tells her that he will be going to train with the army, and as she cries on the bed, he whispers comforting words to her, only we don’t hear what he says because his voiceover tells us he is doing so. They decide to marry in the courthouse before Part 2, the training.
The drills are brutal and, in a curious stylistic choice, as sergeants scream commands in expletive language, their words flash in big red letters on the screen as though the audio wasn’t enough. Eventually, Cherry is sent on a tour in Iraq (part 3 for those counting), and he experiences a devastating tragedy while his convoy is stuck in the middle of the desert. When he returns home (you guessed it, part 4), he is a changed man. He becomes dependent on medication, moving to Oxycontin, and eventually succumbs to heroin. Unfortunately, in her battle to keep Cherry away from the drugs, Emily is quickly drawn into the world, and both spiral with their addictions (which, of course, is part 5). Their descent into drugs leads the lovers into a financial deficit, and Cherry begins robbing banks to support their habit.
The film plays out as expected, with each beat occurring at the exact point it’s supposed to. The screenplay by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg treats each chapter like its own story rather than analyzing how they inform what happens to Cherry. His PTSD may be firmly attributed to the horrors he encounters in Iraq, but the script only moves through his descent before allowing a ten-minute closing sequence spanning 14 years to show how he came out of the situation. His redemption should have been just as crucial as his decline.
There is no doubt that this film looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel utilizes beautiful imagery to capture moments of significance, like when Cherry sees Emily for the first time. It’s as though the world stops, and all the focus is on her. But a staged fight scene in Iraq feels acutely choreographed. It’s deliberately deceiving in direction, making the scene of gunfire and flaming vehicles feel more like an elaborate rehearsal than a fully realized, life-changing moment for our protagonist.
It becomes disarming how overtly over-the-top the Russo Brothers are in their direction. Late in the film, Cherry and his motley crew of friends arrive to rob a bank. The bank’s name reads ‘Bank Fuck America’ on the outer window, and if you hadn’t caught the words the first time, it appears for a second and third moment before appearing in big letters behind the tellers.
Cherry floats so high from the ground that our attachment to the characters diminishes with each chapter so that when Cherry finally stops running, there is little impact. Tom Holland ably carries the film on his shoulders. He is a star and has been since his incredible turn in The Impossible. Someone will write and direct a vehicle worthy of his talents.