Silver Screen: Fury ***
War is hell in David Ayer’s visceral combat drama Fury, in which Brad Pitt leads a tank crew into Germany during the days just before the Nazi surrender. Our boys suspect the end is near, but the sense that the conflict may soon be over only intensifies the feeling of grim futility for the fighting still to come.
Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) has improbably led his crew for three years without a casualty. They include affable driver Gordo Garcia (Michael Peña), lunkhead hillbilly “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), contemplative religious man Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), and a gunner who killed moments before the film opens. The crew is deeply unsettled as their lucky streak ends in what appears to be the waning days of the war, and in no mood to welcome their fallen friend’s replacement. Norman (Logan Lerman) is a green recruit with eight weeks of Army time and no tank training. He’s a bookish typist reassigned to a deadlier task than he ever could have imagined, although Wardaddy and his cohorts confound him by repeating the mantra, “Best job I ever had.”
Writer/director Ayer definitely favors Saving Private Ryan’s traumatic blood-and-mud aesthetic and uses graphic imagery to prop up either war-movie tropes or war-movie clichés, depending on how generously you assess them. There’s the dew-eyed innocent who must sacrifice his naïveté to survive, the curmudgeonly killer lamenting the loss of his own empathy, the band-of-brothers nobility, the fragility and resilience of life highlighted by brutish circumstances. This is nothing we haven’t seen before, although that doesn’t make Fury’s combat scenes any less effective. Ayer stages some especially intense battle sequences, and the suddenness with which death comes imbues even the movie’s quieter moments with a mounting sense of dread.
Fury’s centerpiece is a long sequence in which the Army overruns a German town and takes a break for the night. Gordo and Coon-Ass immediately conscript a semi-willing prostitute, while the paternalistic Wardaddy (whose nickname is a little too on-the-nose) leads Norman into an apartment where they attempt to find respite with two women making a fresh meal of pilfered rations. Years of endless battle haven’t made the men any more amenable to polite society, and the disrupted feast becomes a kind of funeral for their lost humanity. It’s the movie’s most complex, upsetting sequence, played beautifully by a quietly shattered Peña and Bernthal as an almost simian force of chaos.
All these war-is-hell lamentations might have a greater impact if Ayer didn’t seem to so revel in hellishness. The camera’s leering focus on splintered corpses, gushing wounds, and exploding heads too often courts excitement rather than repulsion and teeters on the brink of war porn. It doesn’t help that, for Ayer, everything is Hell. The writer of Training Day and Dark Blue and director of End of Watch wallows in misery even when his movies are set in peacetime; for Ayer, South Central is Hell, doing your job is Hell, and smoking crack with Denzel Washington is Hell. The only valid response to life’s constantly unfolding tragedy is to remain steadfast among a hail of bullets and die a good death. In this nihilistic worldview, we’re presented with no real alternative to the horror. This perhaps unintentionally makes a case that Wardaddy and his men are right where they belong, because you might as well forge your character on the field of battle when it is the only true test of character.
Ayer’s obsession with blasted bodies and brutal truths would carry more weight if that same fidelity to realism applied to the scenes inside the tank. For all its pretensions to verisimilitude, Fury shifts into pure action-movie mode when the tank battles begin. The inside of the vehicle isn’t particular smoky, grimy, or claustrophobic, and the action outside is perfectly clear. Contrast that with the subtler but far more compelling Lebanon, former Israeli soldier Samuel Maoz’s stunning film about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. There the action is confined almost entirely to the inside of the tank. The only view of the outside world comes through the tiny, round window of a periscope, which becomes increasingly cracked and opaque as the conflict progresses. Real-life tank gunner Maoz better approximates the terror, confusion, and confinement of armored combat with a subtler approach that’s ultimately far more affecting. And you never get the impression that he’s muttering under his breath, “Cool.”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.