Robbery is a matter of pure debasement.
So says Cherry, and he would know.
He doesn’t rob banks for the thrill of it, or to feel a sense of power, or even, really, for the money—though he clearly needs it. He robs because he must. His body makes him. No heroin, and he feels like he’s dying. No cash, no heroin. The drug rides him like a crop-holding jockey—forcing him through the streets, into the bank, to the teller. Every holdup is an act of desperation, every dollar speaks to his shame.
But then the needle goes into his arm, and all is forgotten. He’s strong again, in control, at peace … or so he feels. Until the heroin’s gone and the money is, too. And then the jockey mounts again.
He would’ve been different, with a multitude of ifs.
If his college girlfriend, Emily, hadn’t gotten scared of the relationship and announced she was leaving for Montreal.
If Cherry, heartbroken, hadn’t signed up for the Army.
If he hadn’t gone to Iraq, patrolling what was called the Triangle of Death inch by bloody inch.
If, when he came back, the doctors tried to do more for him than offer prescriptions.
But all those ifs are in the past. Now, the questions are more straightforward, more urgent: When will he get his next hit? What bank will he hit next? Will the police finally catch him? Or will the jockey ride him, and ride him, and ride him, straight into oblivion?
Robbery is a matter of pure debasement, says Cherry.
And he would know.
Cherry doesn’t just spiral into this whirlpool of drug addiction by himself. He ends up taking Emily—whom he winds up marrying before leaving for Iraq—with him.
That’s obviously terrible. But after it becomes clear that their lives have spun way out of control, Cherry eventually tries to make some hard, but necessary, decisions for both of them.
We don’t see much spirituality in the movie. Even when Cherry and Emily get married, we’re told the ceremony was performed by a justice of the peace (though we do see a church in the background after the couple goes for a celebratory treat). We hear a passing reference to the Jesuits, in the context of a school Emily attended.
We also see a chintzy plastic light in the shape of an angel in Cherry’s dorm room, which may signal some religious attachment. We always seem to see it when Emily’s around, too: That connection, plus the way the film frequently showcases Emily in an almost ethereal context, suggests that Cherry sees Emily as his angel—a salvific figure who just might have the power to rescue him.
During basic training, Cherry and others make their way through pop-up cutouts of stereotypical Islamic characters whom soldiers called, somewhat derisively, “Hajis.” (The term isn’t supposed to be a slur, but rather simply a Muslim who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca. But it definitely sounds like a slur in the way the soldiers spit that word here.) We see a four-headed sculpture that seems to have Hindu origins.
When Cherry first sees Emily, he tells us that he immediately wanted to have sex with her (using more crass terminology). No surprise that Cherry and Emily’s relationship turns intimate well before they’re married. We see the two in a dorm room, she in her underwear and him lightly rubbing his hand on her stomach. The two kiss often. Cherry masturbates while in Iraq. He says that, unlike for many soldiers, porn holds no appeal for him because he’s still so deeply smitten with Emily.
The couple’s relationship suffers when Cherry, and later, Emily, get heavily involved with drugs. But while both are under the influence, both treat each other with dreamy, intoxicated affection. Emily sometimes walks around without a shirt (though with a bra) or in her underwear without much thought. When both she and Cherry are undergoing withdrawal symptoms, we see both in the bathroom, apparently naked (thought nothing critical is shown; the camera views both of them from the ceiling.)
Cherry had another girlfriend before Emily, and he tells us that she “liked every eye in the room on her.” The two attend a college party, and indeed the other men ogle her, and she dances with some provocatively. Cherry suggests that it was like she was “f—ing a ghost.”
Cherry’s “name” (we don’t actually hear him called anything in the movie itself), and the movie’s title, is a reference to his first military operation in Iraq, when he’s told he lost his combat virginity, so to speak.
Jimenez, Cherry’s best friend in the Army, got his girlfriend pregnant, and he joined the military in order to support her and the baby on the way. We hear graphic references to male and female body parts. We’re told that Emily’s father had an affair. We see the unclothed side of Cherry’s rear as a doctor examines his rectum. (We also get what’s supposed to be a view of what it would look like to peer out of said rectum.) We hear rumors that a certain woman likes to have anal sex.
A group of professional cheerleaders entertains the troops oversees in revealing garb. Men are sometimes seen shirtless and in showers.
Cherry suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq as a medic, and we see some of the reasons why. On his first trip out to the front, he must stuff a man’s intestines back into his abdomen, patching up the wound as best he can before the man is airlifted for more comprehensive attention. (He later hears rumors that that man, and the other men he attended to, died anyway.) He sees the bodies of a few others, still smoldering in the smoking wreckage of their vehicle. One has much of his skin burned away, with the remaining flesh looking charred and horrifically crispy. As he tries to remove one of the bodies, Cherry says he’ll need to pause because the corpses are still so warm that his protective gloves are melting.
Cherry and Jimenez practice on a variety of dummies before being sent to Iraq—mannequins that squirt blood, have bones sticking out of stumps and any number of other simulated injuries. “Jimenez and I saved the lives of 47 dummies,” Cherry tells us, “and so we passed the class.” He says the only way to not pass was to try to kill yourself. We see how one man tried to do just that—hanging himself in a shadowy corridor before falling to the floor. “He didn’t die, but he didn’t graduate, either,” Cherry says.
Cherry suggests that most of the drill sergeants during basic training were insane or pretending to be. One chokes a soldier until he’s unconscious. Another punches Cherry in the privates for no reason, leaving him to writhe around on the bathroom floor. Still another talks about how when he was in Iraq, he had to deal with “grenade children,” and he had to run over them with his truck. “That is why I’m sick in the head,” he shouts.
Wartime scenes filled with explosions and bullets fill the screen frequently, and we see others who’ve suffered some wounds—but none so horrific as the few we mentioned earlier. Soldiers roughhouse on base.
After the war, a disturbed Cherry is terrified to go to sleep because of the terrifying dreams he has. (He sometimes wakes up weeping when he does go to sleep.) He hurls a toaster across the living room, smashing it against the wall. To a counselor, he confesses having suicidal thoughts. At a theater, he punches a bathroom mirror—which forces him and Emily to leave quickly.
A man gets shot and dies from his wounds. He’s left in the street, with his valuables picked off of him. Someone else nearly dies from an overdose. Much violence is perpetrated on a safe. Cherry grabs Emily roughly and pushes her against a wall; two passers-by stop and ask if Emily’s doing all right. People get escorted out of buildings by security guards. Several threats are made. A drunk bar patron keeps talking about someone “blowing his brains out.” People point and sometimes fire guns.
Cherry is one of the most profane movies I’ve ever reviewed, with its f-count tally registering north of 240 uses. The s-word is used about 50 times. Both of those words are used in the satirical names of banks that Cherry robs, painted nicely on their front doors. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ssy,” “d–k,” “c–ks–ker” and a smattering of others. God’s name is misused about seven times, at least five of those with “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused five times.
Cherry is, on some level, about drug use and abuse. So naturally we see a lot of it. It’s impossible to catalog every instance of drug use, but here’s a quick rundown.
Even before Cherry goes into the Army, he was familiar with a variety of drugs. He has a prescription for Xanax (for panic attacks) but shares the pills with his friends. He’s given Ecstasy and takes it before a party. (Someone at the party says that she was also offered some—and it was recommended that she put it in her anus.)
People drink beer at parties, too. When he gets a temporary job as a bartender (where the drinks flow plentifully and we see one particularly inebriated fellow talk with several partygoers), he invites a couple of his friends to attend “so they could drink for free.” (He drinks while on the job, as well.) He and other characters smoke, both cigarettes and marijuana.
After Cherry returns from the war, he continues to try to self-medicate, via alcohol and Xanax and other drugs. (We see Cherry and one of his friends snorting something.) When Emily’s had enough, she tells him to get help—real help that doesn’t come in a bottle. But when Cherry visits the psychiatrist, he asks if he’s ever heard of Oxycontin.
The next time we see Emily and Cherry together, Cherry’s stoned and Emily’s fed up. She pops some of Cherry’s pills, announcing that she needs a vacation, too. She hides under the covers. But that evening, both talk to each other dreamily, and we know that both are headed into junkie territory.
The two use drugs, particularly heroin, frequently. Emily, who works at a school, sometimes bolts to the parking lot during class, where Cherry’s waiting to shoot her up. Their friend/dealer is a guy named Pills & Coke, whose tables and counters are filled with bottles of pills and who seems about to inject some drugs into the mouth of his young sister, who has Downs Syndrome. Naturally, Cherry and Emily’s habits get them into debt with Pills & Coke: The dealer asks them to watch a safe for him in partial recompense, but they break into it instead—using a substantial share of the drugs in it in what seems like an afternoon, then flush the rest of it down the toilet when they worry the cops are going to bust them with it all.
Another of Cherry’s friends, James, is also an addict with a particular yen for Oxycontin, and he was once arrested for stumbling into someone else’s house when he was trying to welcome Cherry home.
Sometimes, these addictions (and the real-world contortions required to satisfy them) seem almost comical, at least in the movie’s estimation. But we also see the horrific toll that these drugs have taken on their users, from their physical decay to the squalor of their house to the people whom the junkies betray. (Cherry admits that he, like all addicts, “Stab your parents in the heart over and over and over again.”)
As we mentioned earlier, Cherry robs banks to support his drug habit. We see him rob several, often swearing profusely as he threatens patrons, and sometimes some of his “friends” help him in the act. He often feels a little bad about it, and he tells us that he tries to treat the tellers with respect. But when he reassures a teller that he’ll wave the gun in front of the security cameras, so her bosses will know she had no choice but to hand over the money, the teller says, “You think that makes you a good guy now?”
Characters obviously lie and evade authorities and treat lots of people, including each other, very disrespectfully. Both Cherry and Emily vomit as a result of withdrawal symptoms (Cherry is seen writhing on a floor, coughing up blood at one point), and when Cherry fails to show up to Emily’s work on time with her own fix, she later tells him that she had to take a sick day because she defecated in her pants.
The Army environment that Cherry’s in looks pretty terrible. In basic training, drill instructors seem to take pleasure in inflicting physical and mental pain on their subjects; in Iraq, many of Cherry’s fellow soldiers treat Iraqis incredibly disdainfully. A couple of people purposefully let someone die to protect themselves.
At its core, Cherry is a redemptive story, one where our character hits rock bottom before he finds a way to climb out. It’s based on a true story, too—that of Nico Walker, who published the source book in 2018 when he was still in prison for bank robbery.
But man, this movie’s rock bottom is a long way down—so far down, in fact, that even viewers may find themselves trapped.
The movie waits until its final moments to toss a redemptive rope down that deep hole. But for more than two hours, Cherry is a wicked, dispiriting slog through the muck. The story pulls down your soul. The content assaults your senses. Whatever purpose it has, and however well it might be crafted, Cherry makes for a miserable viewing experience.
We feel for Cherry, of course. As we watch, we feel him suffer, and we’re grateful for when he finally turns his life around. We know we’d never want to repeat his own mistakes.
So why, then, would we want to vicariously live through them?
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.