Thursday, October 16, 2014
Writer-director David Ayer crafts another fine look at the way shared violent experiences form a tenuous brotherhood among men with Fury. Set in the final days of World War II's European Theater, the movie follows a Sherman tank, christened "Fury," and its battle-hardened crew led by Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). Among Wardaddy's crew are the God-fearing "Bible" (Shia LaBeouf), wisecracking "Gordo" (Michael Peña), and the crude "Coon-Ass" (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their drivers, the tight-knit unit is saddled with a virtual rookie plucked from the clerical corps, Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Norman is our way into this predictably episodic depiction of the horrors of war, one that becomes a surprisingly stylish and at times contemplative suspense film punctuated by short, intense bursts of violence.
Relentlessly grim, Fury makes a powerful impression, presenting the most hellish vision of World War II in American cinema since Saving Private Ryan. Corpses litter the landscape. Heads are blown off. The Germany seen here would not be out of place in Dante's Inferno. Ayer keeps things dynamic by introducing an aesthetic tension between the claustrophobic interiors of the crew's tank and the expansive exteriors that comprise a Germany where most structures have been leveled as the end of the fighting approaches. Norman's discomfort with killing, war, and the inside of a tank is perfectly encapsulated in an early scene. Having just joined the crew, Wardaddy assigns him the repulsive duty of cleaning out his late predecessor's gore from inside of the tank. Bad enough to mop up blood, but Norman completely loses it when he finds part of the dead driver's face lying on the floor. It's a graphic expression of Norman's unease with which the audience is certain to identify.
Curiously, as Fury unfolds, Ayer slowly reverses the polarity just as Norman grows more confident in battle. Soon, it is the wide open fields which elicit fear, for with each subsequent battle and the requisite destruction of Fury's fellow tanks one learns how vulnerable the crew is in these lumbering, outmoded beasts, especially when there's nothing for them to hide behind. Disquieting as it may appear after seeing numerous soldiers on both sides burn to death when an explosive goes off inside a tank, Fury's turret becomes a protective cocoon for Norman and his comrades. It also forges a strange familial bond between these very different men under Wardaddy's harsh, fatherly leadership.
Though much of its running time feels like an tank-bound variation on the 1981 submarine movie Das Boot, Fury occasionally finds moments of transcendence. Such is the extended scene midway through the film, for instance, in which Wardaddy takes a shaken Norman under his wing and invites him along to check out an apartment where two German women are hiding. After initial moments of distrust, the German-speaking Wardaddy wins the two women over, sharing fresh eggs and coffee with them which one begins to prepare for all. Norman relaxes and plays their piano quite beautifully prompting the younger woman to sing along. The two connect and retreat to a private room, while Wardaddy convinces the older woman to let the two youngsters have their moment. It is here that Fury most clearly illustrates the ostensible connection between Wardaddy and Norman or, indeed, that of all veterans with less experienced men. For one beautiful scene, Ayer allows his two heroes to enjoy a civilized moment away from the brutality.
It's a moment that comes crashing down with a thud as soon as the rest of Fury's battle-weary crew joins them. "Ideals are peaceful," Wardaddy tells Norman. "History is violent." It's a point that Fury makes over and over as Ayer continually introduces then harshly eliminates interchangeable, anonymous-looking soldiers. Only the crew of the Fury make any lasting impression, Pitt and Lerman most of all. Both issue a couple of tender performances amidst all of the chaos and destruction that will likely be lost come awards season. It's not that Fury isn't deserving of any consideration. But the nasty truths Fury delivers may be too ironic for audiences unaccustomed to getting a heavy dose of ambiguity with their stories of the Greatest Generation.