Director and screenwriter David Ayer knows a thing or two about grit, as evidenced by the hard-hitting stories he crafted in End of Watch and Training Day. With Fury, named for the main characters’ M4 Sherman tank, his commitment to raw, unblinking storytelling rises along with the scope of his setting. The film takes us to April 1945, the final month of the European Theater of World War II, as Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier leads his tank and crew into the teeth of German defenses possessing far more men and firepower than their American counterparts. Pitt won over audiences in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds with Aldo Raine’s fast talk and charming manner, but Fury asks him to do much more. He bears the weight of war upon Wardaddy’s shoulders as his tank rolls forward, through the quickly devolving German countryside.
From the outset, Ayer makes it clear that Fury will not ride smoothly to victory as the war closes. Instead, he commences with muffled radio chatter and a bleak, smoky battlefield, providing a first glimpse of Wardaddy only after he violently finishes off a German straggler. Ayer then introduces Collier’s gang, completed with fantastic supporting performances by Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf, and Jon Bernthal. Most important, however, is the emergence of Logan Lerman’s Norman Ellison, hastily called in to join the squad following the death of their fifth member. Lerman graduates well beyond the depths of Percy Jackson to allow Ayer to examine the effects of a “good” boy, not yet tainted by the horrors of war, entering into the violent environment. Each time Norman finds a shred of light in their dark circumstances, something snatches it away. He sees a German boy soldier lurking in the bushes, hesitates, and the next thing he knows he’s watching a comrade burn to death before his eyes. He loses it after a tense shootout, dying to go back to his tame position as a typist, only to have Collier physically force him to take the life of an enemy survivor.
Norman comes to accept the distorted virtues of war as his losses become greater. He watches innocent civilians die, and then falls briefly in love with a local. Of course she must die, taken out by an airstrike. Wardaddy, emerging as a father figure, reminds him, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” The audience sympathizes with Norman, slowly realizing the impracticality of ideals when staring down the flashes of machine guns and the power of a tank. At one point Collier muses on Norman, labeling him “young and alive” opposed to the decay of his fellow troops. Sadly, as Fury’s impending doom becomes increasingly clear, so too does Norman’s. Mere days after struggling to pull the trigger, he’s mowing down his faceless enemies, doing whatever it takes to reach an end quickly receding from existence.
Ayer never lets you settle in. With both his camera and his script, he constantly produces imbalance and discomfort, bouncing from the clarity of day to the fogs and fires of battle. Likewise, his characters show us glimpses of humanity — Bernthal’s brutish Grady tells Norman, “I think maybe we ain’t [good], but you are” — but succumb each time to the finality of their ill-fated duty. Ayer makes the soldiers long for calm, yet during the brief moments in which they find this serenity, they cannot escape the atrocities of war. As the final standoff nears Wardaddy gives his men the option to run, to escape the SS, but they don’t know how. The notion of freedom strikes them but quickly moves through, leaving them to endure on the war machine their boss declares as his “home.”
Before the final battle, Norman gains the definitive trust and love of his brothers, nicknamed “Machine” for his newfound penchant for killing Nazis. As this light moment fades, Ayer crafts an absolute hellscape. He pulls his audience in with motivational speeches and an underdog story, but somewhere we know that Fury still won’t survive. Day turns to night and fire to smoke, a haziness that renders the dead bodies faceless and the flow of time unrecognizable. The men who target the tank veil themselves, hidden in the ground and bushes, leaving the audience and the men they’re rooting for unaware of the appearance or identity of their murderous foes.
Thus, Fury succeeds in conveying the proverbial alienation of war. This idea is not new or groundbreaking, and for that some may cast the movie off amongst the many that have depicted this dehumanizing war. Norman walks away from the battlefield, and Ayer makes sure we know just how physically unscathed he is as he does so, but he moves slowly. The typist is gone forever. Only Machine remains. Fury does not tell us anything new about war, though perhaps it reminds us just how detached it is from normal existence. Pitt’s performance, marked by an unbreakable desire to keep fighting, should and will earn him praise. Lerman seems poised and prepared to embrace stardom, and LaBeouf reinvents himself. Ayer’s script lets them shine, but shining always falls to burning as war envelops their realities. Fury makes for a harrowing watch with Ayer’s searing landscapes and unblinking look at the violence of war. Chatter is sparse and hope misguided, for the war is always there, waiting to break the men’s hearts once more.