Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman and Michael Peña
There are a lot of despicably violent images in David Ayer’s Fury, a World War II movie set in the scorched-Earth Germany at the end of the conflict. It begins with a majestic white horse carrying an anonymous soldier through a battlefield, though it’s not long before he’s identified as the enemy when we see Don Collier (Brad Pitt) jump out from a tank and stab him in the neck and eyes. He lets the horse run off.
Not long after that moment, Collier tells a newbie named Norman (Logan Lerman) to clean out his seat in their tank, which includes plenty of blood and the upper quadrant of a human face, eye and all. Norman vomits, and you may want to too. Not only are the images in Fury grotesque, but much of the behavior is too. At first, Collier’s tough-but-fair-ness is insisted upon by the script, but then it’s slowly chipped away. There are times when he seems at risk of transforming into Colonel Kurtz.
Pitt’s casting is crucial to pulling the character (and the movie) back from that apocalyptic edge. Collier is the sergeant commanding a Sherman tank and the other four men on board at the violent end of their tour of duty. He is a father figure, and though there’s plenty of macho posturing, the crew obeys him. Unlike his similar (though decidedly less chatty) character in The Tree of Life, his nature is a saving grace here. He’s the stubborn moral compass in an ashy wasteland. Without his assertive chest-thumping, his crew would have raped the only two women given prominent screen time.
That something like this is portrayed as inevitable is part of what makes Fury the unrelentingly bleak, anti-heroic war movie that it is. Collier is a #NotAllMen ambassador keeping the others at bay while simultaneously trying to induct Norman into that same kind of tormented “manhood.” Lerman plays Norman as a wide-eyed child who is traumatized at every turn. The other tank crew members, played by Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal, view it as their job to mock and bully the humanity out of him.
Fury, like many, many other movies about war, portrays a loss of innocence amid unimaginable horrors. The claustrophobic confines of the tank allows Ayer to examine the toxic masculinity that replaces that innocence at a scrutinizingly close proximity. As in The Hurt Locker, every encounter, especially casual moments between battle sequences, has the potential to erupt in violence.
Unlike Kathryn Bigelow, though, Ayer’s characters’ contagious, destructive hero complexes go largely unchecked at the end. It’s made pretty clear in the Final Battle Against Insurmountable Odds that war is not the drug here, but glory. Collier could have led his crew away from that final clash and their lives could have been spared. But given what they’ve seen and done prior to this, it’s pretty clear why they view this as their best case scenario.
It’s hard to tell exactly where the movie stands with respect to its own portrayals of physical and emotional violence. The battle sequences are bleak and gory, but I sometimes felt like their sole purpose was to shock. Ayer rarely pans out to show a view of the entire battlefield, so the violence is more intense and personal. There are plenty of other World War II movies (and HBO miniseries) that show this kind of horrific war violence, and Fury didn’t do anything substantial with those sequences to really justify having so many of them. Watching the tank crew navigate their own increasingly demented views of the world was much more devastating to me, and LaBeouf in particular gives a subdued but still wrenching performance.
One of Fury’s repeated visual motifs is of soldiers from both sides burning alive. Some shoot themselves in the head instead of enduring the pain, others just walk or run aimlessly until they’re completely consumed. The main characters do not burn, though. As the final shot makes clear, their tank is an island that was desecrated on their own terms.