Cherry is showing in selected theatres from February 26th and premiere’s on Apple TV+ March 12th
“The drill sergeants were just pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army.” – Nico Walker (Cherry)
How do you begin to describe an epic yet intimate film that contains multiple and urgent social issues? This was my first thought as the credits came to a close on Cherry. My initial response to go back for a second viewing just two hours after my first. Revisiting a movie in such close succession is rare for me as a critic. Still, Cherry demanded it, with my second viewing only generating even more questions as its urgent story further unfurled. Is Cherry a war drama? A complex love story? An addiction drama? Or an urgent dissection of post-traumatic stress disorder?
As I sat contemplating these questions, the haunting after-effects of the Russo Brothers movie still with me. I finally concluded that Cherry is, in fact, all four of the above. Its soul rooted in the interface between war, love, addiction, and trauma. The expertly crafted screenplay, both violent, loving, traumatic, and urgent, reflecting the turbulent decade post 9/11. A decade that would result in Trump’s election, rising nationalism, ISIS, and ever-growing social inequality. Of course, Cherry is not the first film to reflect multiple social issues or the global dimensions behind them. So this only furthered my questioning of why Cherry carries such dramatic clout, its exploration of our post 9/11 world lingering long after the credits have rolled.
Based on Nico Walker’s 2018 novel of the same name. Walker’s semi-autobiographical work centres on a young man and his life in Cleveland, Ohio. A life that takes us from his college days to enlisting in the army and serving in Iraq before bringing us back to Cleveland; his post-army life, a whirlwind of PTSD and addiction, leading to several armed robberies followed by jail.
Walker wrote his novel on a typewriter in prison before being released on parole in 2019. His life experience and recovery firmly placed in the fictional hands of a young man known only as ‘Cherry.’ A man who in turn gave voice to so many ex-soldiers who found themselves forgotten, discarded, and incarcerated post Iraq. Their experiences of war burned into the mind, hogging every waking minute, hour and day; a bond held in common with the innocent civilians who found their lives shredded and entrapped by war. For many of these soldiers and civilians, the root out of the horrors that plagued them was found in drugs. Some prescribed and some illicit in nature, the brief freedom and escape they offered a route toward long-term addiction.
However, for others, the memories of blood, destruction and conflict would prove too much to bear; their lives often ended by their own hands. Post-Vietnam, this experience would find a new terminology in ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ or PTSD. However, in reality, the psychological after-effects of war had long been known by a range of titles, from ‘shell shock’ to ‘war neurosis’. The devastation they cause leading many ex-soldiers to despair, while others underwent invasive experimental treatments.
Tom Holland stars in Cherry ©️Apple TV+ and AGBO Films (2021)
Despite this, PTSD remained largely untreated and undiagnosed, with help and support held in a toxic veil of perceived weakness; the Armed Forces quick to enlist and slow to support those who gave their souls in service. However, less discussed is the interface between PTSD, poverty, social status and opportunity. And this brings me back to my question of why Cherry is so deeply affecting. Here, the Russo Brothers not only reflect the abject horror of war but lace this with much broader themes of place, purpose and belonging. Their movie bravely and boldly exploring the socio-economic reality for many returning from war. Realities that lead many to enlist while equally creating an insurmountable barrier to opportunity after leaving.
Cherry is at its strongest when exploring the failures of armed forces that promise protection while discarding soldiers with little concern after conflict. The distribution of medals and commendations no replacement for the damage done, the employment opportunities available, or the financial pressures civilian life brings. Meanwhile, doctors are quick to prescribe drugs without ever engaging in meaningful discussion with patients around the mental trauma they endured. Is it, therefore, any wonder that some ex-servicemen and women end up in rehabilitation, prison or homeless shelters? The hope of a future post-service held in an individuals wealth, status and support structures, many of which may have been creaking at the seams long before they enrolled.
As a love story, Cherry explores the devastation PTSD causes in relationships, with partners caught in the net of increasing anxiety, depression and addiction. While at the same time as a war movie, Cherry embodies similar ground to Kubrick’s masterpiece Full Metal Jacket; the futility of war placed centre stage alongside the toxic attitudes inherent in training. Meanwhile, as an addiction drama, Cherry understands the slippery slope of mental escape and the realities of a system that encourages drug use over human talking therapies. Each of these wrapped in the reality of a capitalist system that keeps people in their given financial place. Resulting in a stunning, intimate and exceptional drama that burns with ferocious energy and complexity.
Throughout the film, holding this complexity together is Tom Holland (Cherry) and Ciara Bravo (Emily). And to say this is Tom Holland’s strongest performance to date is an understatement of the commitment, emotion and anger he brings to the role. In a performance that is, without doubt, Oscar-worthy in every respect. Holland’s understated command of the screen is layered in fear, explosive emotion and a simmering sense of dread. This is a young actor truly coming into his own, bravely taking a role that stretches and expands his abilities; the Russo Brothers creating a safe space for him to flourish. And when Holland’s masterful performance is coupled with Ciara Bravo’s intense and exceptional portrayal of Emily (a character who received little attention in Walker’s novel), Cherry reaches heights other films can only aspire to reach. And that brings us to the directorial and creative strength sitting behind Cherry.
Cherry is the first Russo Brother’s film since leaving the Avenger’s behind, and it could not be more different from the Marvel cinematic universe they helped to create. The big action set pieces of Endgame and Infinity War replaced by something far more personal, intimate and emotional. Their lives growing up in Cleveland finding a unique voice that speaks to their love of home. While at the same time dissecting and exploring the economic hardship that runs through the city. Here, the Russo Brothers almost seem to be reflecting the experience of people they have known and loved, creating a deeply personal movie in the process. Even the films cinematography feels one part love letter to the city and one part study of American decline.
In reflecting Cleveland and its communities, the Russo Brothers echo both Martin Scorsese and Sydney Lumet in ensuring the city becomes a character in its own right. Meanwhile, the bank robbery scenes also find inspiration in Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. The haphazard nature of Cherry’s armed robberies laced with moments of humour as he casually strolls up to the bank counter. His conflicted criminal actions born from frustration, anger and defeat, just like Pacino’s Vietnam veteran Sonny. Meanwhile, Henry Jackman’s sublime score ebbs and flows with the drama on-screen, creating a deep emotional attachment to both Cherry and Emily’s journey.
Directorially, Cherry is a masterclass in filmmaking, matched every step of the way by richly complex and layered performances of the highest order. Of course, whether it gains the attention it deserves in the upcoming award season is yet to be seen. But, there is no doubt in my mind that Cherry is not only one of the finest movies of 2021 so far but one of the most socially complex. It’s sheer weight and power lingering long after the final scene, urging you to revisit and uncover more.
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