In 2018, Nico Walker published his debut novel that he’d written in prison, Cherry, the semi-autobiographical tale of an unnamed narrator who, like Walker, became a decorated medic during the Iraq War, abused opiates to treat his PTSD, and then turned to robbing banks to support his habit. This backstory is relevant because the full context of how this story came to be has a natural arc, one that the Russo Brothers’ movie adaptation doesn’t entirely deliver. It’s a big, beautiful tragedy that offers alienation without much edification.
Cherry the movie, with script by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg, uses a bank robbery as a framing device. We see our narrator, played by Tom Holland, robbing a bank, and then rewind to discover how he got there. Returning to 2003 for chapter one (the story is broken up into five chapters, introduced in title cards) we meet a bright, middle-class Ohio guy whose biggest issue seems to be that he feels too deeply. “It’s not that I’m dumb to the beauty of things,” Holland narrates, over a shot of Fall leaves, “it’s just that I take all the beautiful things to heart, and then they fuck my heart till I about die from it.”
From Kurt Cobain’s stomach pain to James Frey’s “pain pain pain pain” to half of Naked Lunch, that the addict is uniquely attuned to the world’s beauty and cruelty has long been a staple of the recovery memoir. Cherry is so otherwise unique to its time, place, and protagonist that it’s a little disappointing to see it built on this same stock foundation.
Yet the purplish prose does fit the Russo Brothers’ romantic, maximalist approach, utilizing every trick in the cinematic toolbox — slow-motion, voiceover, needle drops, changing aspect ratios, impressionistic landscapes and cartographic overhead establishing shots. In a year that’s given us a surfeit of ultra-Important Dramas based on plays, composed of static shots of drab interiors, the Russo Brothers’ bright, bold, unabashedly cinematic pulp is refreshing. They’re trying hard to make this look pretty and not trying to disguise it. “A film that’s nice to look at” is a basic goal too often overlooked.
One day during English class at their unnamed college, Holland’s character meets Emily, played by Ciara Bravo, his college crush cum white whale turned tragic attraction, who wears a small white ribbon around her neck as a choker like a human Christmas present. After initially blowing it, Holland’s character woos her while rolling hard on ecstasy at a party. He cries after they have sex for the first time and she deadpans, “I guess I have a thing for weak guys.”
Cherry certainly has that whiff of the overearnest about it, which will probably be enough to earn it negative reviews. But this is, after all, a movie about young love, and Bravo is brilliant, the perfect mix of idealized innocence and wry cynicism, a perfectly overwhelming and irresistible attraction for our naive narrator.
While the characters don’t mention the setting much, Cherry is firmly grounded in time and place. It isn’t strictly about rust belt dysfunction, at least not in the way that Holland’s last (and fantastic) performance as a wide-eyed Ohioan in The Devil All The Time was, but decaying American Empire is Cherry‘s ever-present backdrop. The screwed-up side characters, these orphans of a failing system, are some of its best bits. Expert weirdo Michael Gandolfini and Forrest Goodluck with a wonky eye play two of Holland’s delinquent friends. Michael Rispoli from The Deuce gets a memorable cameo as a drunk ex-con at a restaurant, who keeps babbling about no one having the balls “put a gun to the guy’s head and BLOW HIS BRAINS OUT,” before our protagonist drives him home.
Stylistically, Cherry is a joy to watch. It’s dynamic, vivid, gorgeous, and it moves. Eventually, it moves to a weird place, but before it does, most impressively, it feels like young love. That young love inspires bad decisions, and those bad decisions lead to bad situations, and those bad situations lead to more bad decisions. This inexorable downward spiral is poetic and tragic, but maybe a little too slick, in a way that turns the trauma it seeks to describe into surface clichés. The characters start to lose agency as they stumble from one worst-case scenario to the next, and somewhere along the line, Cherry stops feeling like a tale and starts feeling like a cautionary tale, something you tell kids to keep them from trying drugs or joining the army.
Cherry perhaps doesn’t dig deep enough, such that even at two hours plus, something about the ending feels rushed or false. The epilogue, shot in slow-motion montage set to swelling strings, feels like an attempt to substitute style for real resolution in a way that the rest of the movie tricks don’t. It manages to feel paradoxically like they’re yadda yadda-ing through the last bit, but also doing it really slowly.
Still, even if Cherry isn’t a ringing success in the end, it’s hard not to feel like the Russo Brothers were at least attempting something special here. And this ambitious creative failure is worth its weight in modest successes.