Directed by sibling filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo, “Cherry,” based on Nico Walker’s mostly autobiographical debut novel, is filled with “Dr. Whomever” flourishes, announcing that this film will be a little different from the Russos normal fare (those little-known films like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Avengers: Endgame“). The Russos are deeply embedded in the Marvel universe, and “Cherry” is the opposite almost every way possible, not just because of its subject matter—a blistering critique of the Iraq war, not to mention the disgraceful treatment of veterans upon their return home, as well as a critique of doctors pushing Oxy onto their patients, resulting in the catastrophic opioid epidemic we all know and hate. “Cherry” comments on itself compulsively, and the results are mixed. Some of these flourishes work well—although the influence of “GoodFellas” is too felt, and there are times when another kind of film altogether struggles to express itself, something much darker, something more in line with the source material’s bleak frankness.
Walker’s novel is based on his own experiences with war, opiate addiction and crime. It’s a big book about big things, written in present-tense first-person, with a grim flat-affect tone. The comparisons with writers like Denis Johnson or Charles Bukowski are appropriate, although Walker also belongs to the growing crowd of veteran-writers, who came back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with stories to tell, writers like Phil Klay (whose excellent debut story collection, Redeployment, won the National Book Award in 2014). Walker’s story is a little different, though, because when he returned to Cleveland from Iraq, he got hooked on opiates and proceeded to rob 11 banks over a four-month period. He was eventually apprehended, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. After Buzzfeed did a huge piece about Walker, book publishers came calling. Walker wrote Cherry while incarcerated. The book received universal acclaim (Walker used some of the profits to pay back the banks he robbed). Walker was released from prison in 2019, just in time to see his novel adapted into film.
Walker’s gift as an author is drawing you into his experience with simple and yet vivid language, and he does so seemingly effortlessly. For example, on what it feels like to do heroin: “The taste comes on first; then the rush starts. And it’s all about right, the warmth bleeding down through me. Till the taste comes on stronger than usual, so strong it’s sickening. And I figure it out: how I was always dead, my ears ringing.” That’s very fine. Or this, so unexpected and funny it rings true: “One thing about holding up banks is you’re mostly robbing women, so you don’t ever want to be rude.” As Christian Lorentzen noted in his review for New York Magazine, Cherry has “nothing of the scent of an MFA program.”
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