Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Filmmakers go into moviemaking to tell stories they’re passionate about, despite that being an impossible privilege to get right out of the gate. In most cases, directors need to pay their dues before they’re powerful enough to make whatever they want, which rarely happens as it is. Happily for Joe and Anthony Russo, they delivered two of the biggest and most financially successful movies of all time, so they definitely have earned a licence to tell any story they want. For directors who reach this status, their first passion project is almost always an experimental appropriation of Martin Scorsese’s directorial style. The Russo’s Cherry (2021) is one such film.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker, we are told the story of Cherry (Tom Holland), a young man who enlists in the US army after he and his girlfriend Emily (Ciara Bravo) part ways. Frustratingly, she comes back to him after he’s already been sworn in. The young couple quickly get married, deciding to wait for each other while he goes off to fight in the Iraq War. The horrors and violence he experiences in combat sends him into a deep depression, as he suffers from intense PTSD and eventually a crippling heroin addiction. In order to maintain his new lifestyle, Cherry turns to bank robbing.
As is evident from the plot description, The Russo Brothers have ventured into much darker territory than what we’re used to from them. This is an extreme foray into mature storytelling and they clearly have pulled out all the stops for it. Between the drug use, violence and generally pessimistic attitude, this isn’t the kind of story that leaves you happy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as this is chronicling a particularly tragic life and it must be treated as such. From start to finish, it’s a particularly wild ride which constantly finds new ways to shock you, disgust you and depress you. There’s Scorsese-esque dark comedy throughout, but at no time does it lose the appropriately bleak tone.
Even though a bleak outlook is the right way to go, it’s often a little too over the top and feels like it’s trying too hard to be edgy. This is mostly caused by The Russo’s throwing literally every single depraved thing they can think of on the screen. This may come in the form of dialogue exchanges, camera tricks, editing transitions or story points in general, meaning there’s barely a moment to rest before the next attempt at shock value rolls around. To be fair, it’s clear the Russo’s are testing the bounds of their creativity (which they should be applauded for), but sometimes you wonder what’s the purpose of showing us a point of view shot from inside Tom Holland’s buttocks.
Tom Holland himself seems to be in a similar position to the directing team, as he’s clearly been taking roles which will shed his relatable teenage type-casting. From his work in The Devil All the Time (2020) to this, Holland has made a conscious effort to show off his dramatic range in adult stories. While both of those roles force Holland to be the tough guy, he fairs a lot better here than he did in The Devil All the Time, as the narrative itself plays into the fact that Holland reads like an awkward boy. The deeper the character descends into drugs, anxiety and crime, the more convincing and raw Holland’s work gets. The performance given here isn’t too different from the kind Leonardo Di Caprio would haven given back when he was trying to shed his pretty boy persona.
Sadly for all of its good intentions, powerful performances and bombastic craftsmanship, Cherry is let down by an incredibly disjointed story structure and pretty unbearable pacing. Granted, it’s not easy to deliver a cohesive narrative when it essentially boils down to a checklist of one man’s life events, but you can avoid any pitfalls by making the narrative intentions clear as early as possible. It jumps from one harrowing scenario to the next without much thought in how it’s all thematically linked. While there’s definitely a point to be gleaned from the film’s conclusion, it takes way too long to put all the pieces in place. Additionally, the viewer is pretty tired and ready for the film to end by the time it starts coming together.
None of this would be that big of a deal if the content itself was engaging on anything more than a visceral level, but unfortunately that’s not the case. The narrative is broken into very clearly delineated acts, all punctuated by a new character journey, tone and scenario. While this does aid in giving the film a massive scope, it does frustratingly sap the story of its originality as each act just unassumingly borrows from other sources. To start with it’s just like the first act of Taxi Driver (1976), then it becomes The Hurt Locker (2009), only then to become Trainspotting (1996). Sure, it all leads to the slightly more original bank robbery story, but we have to suffer through the cheap knock offs of better films before we get to what we actually paid to see. The examination of the character through his criminal career is a grand highlight, but it isn’t given the spotlight.
It’s always exciting when visionary storytellers and charming leads get their “I can make whatever I want” card. They get to expand their toolkit and we get to see what they’ve got. Therefore, it’s a shame whenever the stories they tell don’t quite hit those promised heights. You know there’s things you like and you know there’s artful genius in there somewhere, but it’s misshapen or malformed in some way. Cherry isn’t the masterpiece it was intended to be, but at the very least it’s an indicator that The Russo’s and Holland probably still have many stories left to tell.
Best way to watch it: When you want to scare your child away from drugs.