Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
scr Angela Russo-Otstot, Jessica Goldberg
prd Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Mike Larocca, Jonathan Gray, Matthew Rhodes
with Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Rispoli, Jeff Wahlberg, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Gandolfini, Suhail Dabbach, Daniel R Hill, Fionn O'Shea, Damon Wayans Jr, Thomas Lennon
release US 26.Feb.21,
UK 12.Mar.21
21/US 2h21

reynor goodluck wayans

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The Russo brothers take a whizzy cinematic approach to this gritty dramatic odyssey, playing with camera angles, graphics and elaborate set-pieces. And a frankly numbing running time. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography and Jeff Groth's editing are so flashy that the film never feels realistic, but performances have earthy authenticity. The narrative covers a lot of ground, holding the interest even if the deeper themes seem a little thin.
At 23, Cherry (Holland) is a former Army medic who has become a bank robber to pay for the drugs he needs to silence his post-traumatic stress. At random moments, he's reminded of Emily (Bravo) his university girlfriend and first love, as well as the various friends who introduced him to an escalating series of addictive substances. And then there's basic training, with a buzz-cut and verbally abusive drill sergeants, followed by deployment into Iraq'a Triangle of Death. Back home with Emily, Cherry is taunted by nightmares and stress that only illicit drugs will soothe.
The introspective reveals Cherry's thoughts, sometimes spoken to-camera or reflected in the settings, as well as the large number of people who come and go. Each becomes a vivid person with a separate journey that collides with Cherry along the way. Some of these are more lingering, such as old pals James and Joe (Goodluck and Gandolfini), whose lives go off the rails in parallel with Cherry's. And then there's the drug-buddy Cherry calls Pills & Coke (Reynor).

This is a tour-de-force performance for Holland, who adeptly lets us experience Cherry's mind-boggling range of experiences, including the joy of first love, horror of warfare and pain of addiction. Bravo is also strong as a young woman who is deeply in love but driven to the brink by Cherry's junkie tendencies, so she joins him. What follows veers from giddy highs to agonising lows. Their relationship is believably tight, even when they're pushed in unthinkable directions.

While the central issue is drug abuse, the film doesn't arrive there until about halfway in. The extended build-up is beautifully played, offering textures to the characters and their decisions. So the emotional explosions later on have real power. But for what's essentially a dark internal journey, the film feels over-made. Every sequence is full-on operatic, elaborately staged and shot. But the best scenes are the quiet ones in which the camera simply watches the actors. Those are the moments that really tell this story.

cert 15 themes, language, drugs, violence, sexuality 4.Feb.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall