The Russo Brothers – Anthony and Joe – are among the most successful filmmakers in history. Avengers: Endgame was, until recently, the most watched film ever (it was only a judicious re-release of Avatar that put that particular trophy back into James Cameron’s hands and that may be a temporary arrangement). It was always interesting to speculate about where the Russos would go next.
On the face of it, this Apple Original film seems a surprising move for them. Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, it mostly concentrates on the life on just one man. Even though he’s played by Spider-Man’s Tom Holland, he’s a pretty ordinary Joe, not given to wandering about in brightly coloured spandex or indulging in extended punch-ups with supervillains. This is, ostensibly, an intimate story – and yet, the Russo’s bombastic style somehow gives it an epic scope, an almost operatic quality, which is enhanced by Henry Jackman’s stirring score.
When we first meet Cherry, he’s in the process of robbing a bank (not his first time) and is chatting amiably to the audience as he goes about it, a daring conceit that really pays off. He’s also about to make a decision that will change his life irrevocably.
It’s at this point that the film whisks us way back to his fresh-faced teenage years, where, in the first of a series of separate episodes, he encounters Emily (Ciara Bravo), the young woman who will become his significant other. A romance duly ensues but, after Emily announces she wants to move to Montreal, Cherry rashly enlists in the army, realising too late that his partner has changed her mind. and he cannot change his. Soon afterwards, he’s plunged headlong into military training and, subsequently, armed combat. The film’s initial brash, cheerful tone veers into darker waters and keeps on going, full speed ahead.
Once out of the armed forces, and suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, Cherry seeks solace in drugs. At first he’s merely overindulging in Xanax and OxyContin, but then he and Emily start the long descent into hardline heroin addiction, in a series of no-holds-barred sequences that make Trainspotting look like a nice day at the funfair. Yes, this is unremittingly bleak subject matter but the story never relaxes its stranglehold on my attention. I find myself compelled as much as I’m appalled and, occasionally, I’m dazzled by unexpected bursts of brilliance.
The director’s final tour de force is the unfolding of fourteen years of narrative in one mesmerising tracking shot, accompanied by Puccini’s Vissi D’Arte. It’s an audacious move and really shouldn’t work, but somehow it’s pulled off with a flourish. Hats off to Tom Holland, who manages to give his all to a role that sees him age from boy to man with absolute conviction.
This really won’t be for everyone – the film never hesitates to show the depths that can be plumbed when drug addiction holds sway. Others have accused the Russo’s of employing style over content, but I disagree. Cherry’s story must be an all too familiar one for so many young soldiers, put through the mincer of warfare and then left to make their own way back into everyday existence. With its epic feel, Cherry makes that story both heroic and tragic in equal measure.