Carried by a raw and brilliant Tom Holland performance this movie works in fits and starts.
The film is based on a somewhat autobiographical novel of the same name by Nico Walker detailing his time as an Army medic, and his struggles after returning home with PTSD and an opioid addiction.
Tom Holland, the current Spider-Man, stars as our unnamed protagonist. He is our narrator and our point of view. He sometimes speaks directly to the camera, but most often tells the story through voice over. He is a force to be reckoned with as an actor. His emotional range is just searing in intensity and authenticity.
He meets the love of his life Emily, played by Ciara Bravo, who’s face radiates innocence at the start and a world weariness by the end. They fall madly in love, but she gets scared and tries to leave him. He sees no future without her and joins the army.
These early scenes are full of little moments that feel so true to life. When he admits it wasn’t true love at first sight, he just wanted to have sex with her. When he discovers he’s colorblind he asks if he can still be an army medic and the answer is “you still know what color blood is, don’t you?” And an incredibly vivid and gruesome scene in which as a medic he carries a body out of a flaming humvee and his gloves start melting. Details like these really make the film stand out.
The other touch that really makes it standout is the visual style the directors Anthony and Joe Russo employ to tell this story. They really go for a subjective style that puts us right inside our protagonists head. From using incredibly soft focus that blurs out everything in the frame except Emily’s face in the scene where they first meet, to quick flashes of how he imagines the people he’s with. As Emily tells a story from her childhood we see how he imagines it played out complete with coloring book backdrops and dramatic lighting. It’s a really interesting style that worked for me.
My biggest problem is that it has no target. Our protagonist leaves the army with PTSD and falls into drug use. The movie doesn’t blame the lack of mental health care. It doesn’t condemn the drug companies for flooding the country with OxyContin. It doesn’t blame the protagonist for his lack of communication and refusal to reach out for help. The movie is full of anger and despair, but it has no target for its rage. It doesn’t blame the systems in place. It doesn’t blame the characters for their choices, so the actions depicted in the film end up feeling preordained.
He had to join the army. He had to have PTSD. He had to turn to drugs. He had to rob banks to support his drug addiction. No one in the story could have done anything differently. No one is at fault. This is just what happens. It just wasn’t enough for me.
The movie also way too long. It’s almost two and a half hours. A lot happens which merits the length, but when the film doesn’t have a strong message about those events it gets a little lost in the runtime.
In the end, I loved Tom Holland. I’d watch the movie again just for how good he is. His work bumps it up a letter grade in my opinion. The film making is pretty solid throughout, but the story falls apart for me in it’s fatalistic approach to the subject of opioid addiction.
It’s mostly my cup of tea. B+