Cherry feels like the cinematic embodiment of the expression “throw everything at the wall to see if it sticks.” The Collins Dictionary defines that to mean saying something “that is not believable but hoping that what is said will be acceptable as truth.” For the movie, it’s about the performers and filmmakers piling on every trope and trick they can to try and get noticed for praise. To that end, Cherry is trying way, way too hard.
Sourced from the best-selling pseudo-memoir of the same name by Nico Walker, Cherry chronicles the hardscrabble romantic roots, the brave battlefield survival, the destructive vices, and the criminal exploits of a disillusioned veteran of the War on Terror. Other than the bravery vibe, this kind of arc is new and rugged ground for the sleek Marvel Cinematic Universe directors Anthony and Joe Russo.
Cherry, streaming on AppleTV+, breaks its storytelling into chapters, opening with a 2007 prologue of an unnamed man (Russos’ Spider-Man Tom Holland) on the brink of committing a bank robbery. He’s talking to us about his defeated mindset, speaking a line like, “I take the beautiful things to heart and then they fuck my heart.” It’s a desperate and dangled tease of potential thrills that may or may not come.
However, it is not the start of this story. That would be four years earlier in 2003 when the same introverted man forms his shared bleak worldviews leaving his partying high school girlfriend by hopelessly falling in love with the more bohemian Emily (former Nickelodeon child actress Ciara Bravo). With no job prospects after they soon marry, the man joins the Army to be a medic, just in time for the invasion of Iraq.
From here, Cherry becomes a collection of numerous “horrors of war” tropes that we’ve seen in similar shapes and forms in other movies and places. Nearly the entirety of this film critique could be taking an event from the film and pointing it at one of the many well-worn quotes that speak on the “horrors of war.”
Here’s one, in fact.
“What the horrors of war are, no one can imagine. They are not wounds and blood and fever, spotted and low, or dysentery, chronic and acute, cold and heat and famine. They are intoxication, drunken brutality, demoralization and disorder on the part of the inferior… jealousies, meanness, indifference, selfish brutality on the part of the superior.” – Florence Nightingale
Attach the Nightingale angle to the grunt mentality beat into the main character’s heart through rough basic training and combat. That familiar roller coaster is poured over for an extended stretch in the movie as he endures the yells of basic training, the monotony of waiting for trouble, and the hellfire that accompanies it when it arrives.
Take another with this chestnut.
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.” – Richard Price
Point the Price quote to Cherry’s little shingle of the war experience from a medic’s point of view. The aftermath blood-and-guts factor matching that job differs from that of a soldier with a machine gun under his arm. It adds up to how little ungodly details and sensations will haunt the man as triggers later.
Lastly, digest one more:
“There are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can’t quite see. Either way, it’s the same story.” – Phil Klay
Cherry presents the completed coming-of-age man returning home to his wife with a Medal of Valor on his breast and a battered heart of PTSD underneath it. Dreams of violence carry over into his downtrodden and unemployed life. When the bottle can’t dull the pain, he finds drugs that do, supplied by a local dealer nicknamed Pills & Coke (Jack Reynor of Sing Street).
The “Dope Life” envelopes Cherry on the homefront. Our main man weakly laments “You can kill yourself really slow, but feel like a million bucks doing it.” Emily joins him on this tailspin, where mutual addiction becomes their greatest shared affection. When affording their vices is beyond them, that’s when our frantic veteran turns to bank robbery. This regular life lesson of “Kids, don’t do drugs” always arrives as the painfully ignored pitfall that sets off multiple bad choices that follow.
There’s another angle of Cherry that takes a deserving aim at the broken system of support and opportunities for former members of the Armed Services. Too often in these kinds of movies, the socio-economic prospect for veterans are downright shitty. With mocking pot shots, the banks being held up have deliberately backhanded names mixed with profanity that speak to who the conscience of the movie thinks is the largest culprit to blame for the low potential and poor results. This too is not new ground. Speaking of that voice…
Cherry lives and dies through Tom Holland. To his great credit, this is his meatiest acting to date. Whether it’s in his outward pure abasement or his tortured and disillusioned internal monologue, Holland absorbs those hits and ticks that shatter his character’s constitution. This is also where Bravo elevates her role from the usual sidecar of the suffering spouse to an active participant, enabler, and impediment. Both play characters that demand attention yet cannot get it even with their loudest shouts and actions. If only someone would listen.
If those lessons and threads sound all over the place, it’s because they are, and the movie itself veers equally wildly to bounce through them. Newton Thomas Sigel, a long-time collaborator of Bryan Singer who just finished Da 5 Bloods in this last year for Spike Lee, is a world-class cinematographer, but he, or his directors calling the shots, couldn’t be more unfocused from an aesthetic standpoint. When Sigel plays with repetitive overhead establishing shots, single color filters, blurred edges, long tracking shots, random freezes, the use of cranes and drones for height, and more, he’s like that little kid at the fountain dispenser putting every mismatching pop flavor from the row of choices into one fizzy cup of sugared mess. Sure, give him credit for “throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks,” as was aforementioned. That doesn’t mean it all works.
The same up-and-down goes for the audio areas. The musical score of Henry Jackman is unmemorable and the movie’s hard-on for Van Morrison is three decades too late and out of place for this era. The intention of the directors may have indeed been to have six different tones instead of one. That counts as ambitious, certainly, but again, that doesn’t mean it all works.
By the time you reach the conclusion of Cherry and the sum of its parts, the swerving redundancies are copious. When you ask yourself if you’ve seen this kind of fallen hero stuff before, you shrug. When you ponder if you’ve ever seen addiction and PTSD arcs get this bad, you shrug again. At last you wonder if Cherry did its part to advance any of those adversities and messages further and that shrug turns into a head-shake of refusal.