It's April 1945 and an American Sherman Tank crew find themselves wading deep into the hostile territory of Nazi Germany. Technologically outmatched by the German Panzer tanks and being tasked to break through the last fierce stand of the Third Reich, we see what this enduringly brutal conflict has done to men. Ayer writes a grotesque portrait of war and especially those who would endure the conflict to its bitter end. These soldiers are not the strong silent types, stoically going about their duty for country and the greater good. Brad Pitt's 'Wardaddy' and his crew 'Bible' (Shia LaBeouf), 'Gordo' (Michael Pena) and 'Coon-Ass' (Jon Bernthal) feel like Vikings or Neanderthals in khaki. As young typist Norman (Lerman) is redeployed to be their new gunner he's harrassed to the point of psychological breakdown in order to prepare him for the inhumanity required to survive. Fury is shot in beautiful 35mm film and the claustrophobic tank battles will rattle you in your seat. You get to experience how the crew simmers inside their metal beast as it grinds forward. Hot shells eject from canons into the metal belly, a hose carrying hot oil leaks and spurts, while the orders being barked to synchronise their actions are traced by dripping sweat. Ayer wants you to be able to taste the intimacy of some kills (murdering a captive for example) and how desperately outmatched our meat bag bodies are in the face of streaming lead.
Despite large action set pieces, the central conflict of the film is demonstrated in a pit stop in a small German town that they 'liberate' of Nazis. After their commander (Jason Isaacs) orders brief R&R (rest and relaxation) the soldiers swarm on the town to pillage and essentially rape the populace of women. Ayer is not approving of the actions, instead it's a harsh critique that even in the mid twentieth century the 'perks' of being an invading army hadn't changed. Don/Wardaddy (Pitt) and Norman (Lerman) sneak away into the apartment of a woman and her daughter to be waited on, clean-up and to give Norman a chance to prove his manhood. This is Ayer contrasting the savage with the cordial and how Don/Wardaddy must repress his murderous impulses to get a taste of civilisation. When Bible (LaBeouf), the wild Coon-Ass (Bernthal) and slimy Gordo enter this haven from the indiscriminate butchery it's like watching adolescent lions being held back by the tether that the alpha will burst out of his skin and exert his dominance if they don't toe the line. The strain in the scene teeters on becoming material when suddenly an air assault drags the soldiers out of their state.
Brad Pitt's character really has two pronounced personas. Don is the reasonable man alongside his colleagues and the civilised man in the centrepiece of the film. Wardaddy is a wraith that dives from the top of disguised tank to skewer an SS officer with a blade, intimately slicing the life right out of him. Wardaddy has brainwashed his crew that their job is 'the best job in the world' and Don is acutely aware every day that they're clawing toward an eventual victory and toward a civilisation that he will no longer recognise. Logan Lerman's Norman begins as christian pacifist and incites Don/Wardaddy and the rest of the crew to haze him into preparedness. The emotional and psychological torture of being made to execute prisoners, bed a woman or else she'll be 'taken,' and to exterminate hordes of German soldiers to ensure that he and his crew will survive, kneads the empathy out of him.
Shia LaBeouf's 'Bible' is like the spirit level of the rest of his crew. He takes the venom out of Gordo and Coon-Ass, brings the tenderness and Christian camaraderie to his interactions with Norman and finally plays like a melancholic reflection to the darkest moments of Wardaddy, looking to extract the Don. LaBeouf gets under your skin as Bible. He's like an emotional damn, muttering and shaking that you think will burst for the duration of the film. It's the actor's most accomplished performance by far. Jon Bernthal continues to be one to watch after Fury, he's got the same ferocity of a young Robert DeNiro or Harvey Keitel. Pena's Gordo really grated in comparison to the performers around him. While in Ayer's previous film End of Watch, his performance was the primary highlight, he felt like the passenger in comparison to the rest of the ensemble.
Ayer had this core group of actors wound up and dialled into their performances. It's been noted in several interviews that he had the actors fight at the beginning of the day to get into the mindset required to both love and loath each other. Despite being unorthodox, the results are overwhelmingly positive.
In Devin Faraci's tremendous review of Fury for Badass Digest he spoke about how the ending undercut the scathing analysis of men and war up to that point, and it's an extremely valid argument. An alternative perspective perhaps is that the film's climax (that pits the unit against wave after wave of the worst of the worst SS soldiers) confirms precisely why the dominant of portrayals of men and war in World War 2 cinema had been glorified up until this point. Until this final redemptive act, the 'greatest generation' are the same unhinged, damaged people that we are, except that their fight had the most defined 'goodness.' Much like End of Watch, it's the closing moments of Fury that do tremendous disservice to the entire film. It ground to a screeching halt like a tank track rolling over a land mine.
Ayer's and his ensemble in Fury cast men in World War Two, the last 'good' war, in a ghastly light.
[rating=3] and a half Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.