Written and Directed by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke
David Ayer (End of Watch) is known for gritty thrillers that depict harsh realities in unflinching ways. While there is often an authenticity and attention to detail in his films, he also has no problem amping up the violence to the point where it can almost feel sadistic and surreal. His latest film, Fury, applies this brutal sensibility to a military battlefield, where it remains unclear if he is condemning the atrocities of war or celebrating them. But for the most part, the movie’s apparent contradictions are kind of the point.
Fury takes place during the tail end of WWII as Allied forces make a final push into the heart of Nazi Germany. Victory is drawing near, but the soldiers are beaten down and exhausted. The story focuses on the five-man crew of a Sherman tank led by Sgt. Don Collier aka Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), an experienced leader who remains calm under fire. But if the thought of Brad Pitt killing Nazis seems similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, there is no humour or alternate history at work here… just human beings in the midst of hell, desperately trying to survive.
Brad Pitt is once again playing a father figure of sorts to a ragtag crew, but in this case, even he is shaken by what he has endured. When young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is assigned to their team trained only as a desk clerk, Wardaddy is reluctant to take him on. He knows that he cannot afford to coddle a rookie without putting their lives at risk. His other teammates are even less willing to accept someone new, projecting a hardened exterior and keeping him at arm’s length. Unpleasant though it may seem, the bonds of battle develop in a natural and meaningful way.
Pitt is great but Shia LaBeouf also turns in an impressive performance as Bible, so nicknamed for his religious beliefs and penchant for quoting scripture. In some ways he is the heart of the team, the one capable of expressing the most outward emotion. Regardless of his off-screen antics, LaBeouf is continuing to prove his worth on screen. On the other hand, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) is a force to be reckoned with in this movie, a terrifying portrait of pure testosterone. Michael Pena rounds out the crew by adding some pragmatism and comic relief.
Although it may not be the most eloquent movie ever made about war, there is a raw poetry to it at times. It mixes the assault of violence and ugliness with occasional moments of calm and beauty. Some of the dialogue feels dangerously cliched and yet it never feels particularly false coming from these characters. We don’t know a whole lot about their back stories, but I don’t think we need to. If the characters had decided to lay out their life stories to the newcomer for the benefit of the moviegoing audience, that would seem even more contrived.
It is clearly a deliberate choice by Ayer to keep things business-oriented, and much like in End of Watch, he chooses to frame the characters simply as professionals doing a not-so-glamorous job. Despite the bigger budget and scale, Ayer retains his trademark grittiness. I don’t know if there has ever been a war movie that is this grimy and dirty… you can almost taste the mud, sweat and blood inside that tank. While that may turn some viewers off, the bleakness isn’t quite as oppressive as it sounds.
When the crew of Fury jump into action, it is exhilarating to watch. Tank battles have been somewhat neglected in a lot of war movies, probably because they are slow-moving and claustrophobic. Ayer previously served in the U.S. Navy on a submarine, however, so he knows how to exploit these facts in order to construct some incredibly thrilling and suspenseful scenes. The battle versus the German Tiger tank is one of the most intense action scenes I’ve seen all year.
Also, believe it or not, one of the most memorable scenes in the movie has no explosions in it. The movie comes the closest to feeling like Inglourious Basterds when Wardaddy leads Norman into a house occupied by two young German women. It is a very long and tense sequence that walks a delicate tightrope as his intentions remain unclear. The scene somehow avoids being overly uplifting or upsetting, but proves the point that these soldiers are simultaneously capable of both heroic deeds and horrible things. Their callousness has clearly changed them.
Ultimately, the tank is a home for these five soldiers and they are a family unit. The point is spelled out multiple times in the movie, but it is an effective metaphor. If Fury feels a bit exaggerated in its finale, it is because the tale has crossed over from reality to myth, perhaps as a story like this would be retold years later. It’s clear that Ayer is paying tribute to the many men who gave their lives, but he also points out that there is good and bad on both sides of the battlefield and one cannot come without the other. The message is nothing new, but the way in which it is expressed will leave you breathless. — Sean