Stylistically and thematically, the closing credits of writer-director David Ayer’s WWII tank film, Fury, starring Brad Pitt, are some of the most fascinatingly jarring of recent years.
The proceeding film is an often brutal, gruesome look at the psychological cost of war, namely the anger—yes, the fury—that some long-time soldiers eventually fill themselves with to physically and emotionally survive and keep fighting, even in a war that’s almost won. Well-constructed with visual drive and inward determination, Fury is exciting and moving but most often mournful over the loss of not just life but innocence that war—even a “Good War”—demands.
But Fury’s end titles are a grating, shocking montage of WWII scenes; of humans fighting and dying in battle, the jumble-hacked screen drenched in a blood-red tint. They feel like horror-film credits—the sort of glaring, gash of dread ferocity you’d find following a teen slasher flick. And that has to be intentional on Ayers’ part.
While his movie does its best to deconstruct and subvert the more hollow “honor” and “glory” of too many war films, it still stars our beloved Brad Pitt, and even as the film works to snuff any sense of celebration or entertainment thrill from its very exciting battle scenes, it still can’t avoid a few war-movie clichés, including noble speeches and heroic deaths.
The credits are, however, an impressive slap in the face just as the film ends, reminding us of Ayers’ operating thesis amid the film’s gripping entertainment value and gritty faux-realism: War is a true horror show that can, out of necessity, turn even the most good-hearted and best-intentioned of humans into monsters.
Ayers—who famously wrote the bad-cop Training Day and wrote and directed 2012’s underrated good-cops End of Watch—himself served in the Navy and prides himself on his immersion in and fictional documentation of the camaraderie of closed-off macho-male cadres (including the non-stop ball-busting banter). He’s fascinated by the price any warrior must pay, the moral lines that have to be crossed, and the myths and aggrandizement bought into to rationalize the transgressions.
In that respect, Ayers sometimes teeters between exploitative film making for the sake of macho, bad-boy fantasies and having searching for meaning amid the gun play. And while his Sabotage earlier this year with Schwarzenegger mostly pandered to action-flick genre shallowness, his films like End of Watch and now Fury are genuinely interested in what all that violence means. And what it costs those in professions that demand it.
The R-rated Fury doesn’t shy from the gore, and on first glance you might dismiss the film as simply a “men on a mission” war flick dunked in indulgent blood letting. But Ayers makes all those spilled blood and guts count; Fury rolls steadily ahead under his surest direction to date with the film maker in control of his violent imagery. That imagery includes pieces of faces splattering the inside of a tank, limbs and heads blown off, eyes stabbed, and men on fire, but Ayers is careful to pay for every gruesome visual, firmly showing us what all that death means to those still living, including the men who caused it.
One of those men is Pitt’s Sgt. Donald “Wardaddy” Collier, commander of a Sherman tank crew that’s been fighting and killing Germans together for years. It’s spring of 1945, and everyone but Hitler knows the war is over, but Collier and his men must make that final push on into the Fatherland, well past their frayed and tattered physical and emotional endurance, still both protected and trapped inside their tank, a cramped, claustrophobic place they’ve named “Fury” but call home.
Each man in Collier’s crew has, since North Africa, found a way to cordon off themselves from the horrors they’ve witnessed and committed. That includes Shia LaBeouf as a Bible thumping gunner who masks his pragmatic cynicism with scripture; Michael Pena, who, as the tank’s driver prefers to find his faith in a bottle; and Jon Bernthal as the loader, a shaved redneck ape hiding behind backwoods base simplicity. Foul-mouthed and as likely to turn their anger and frustration on each other as on the Germans, the vets are joined by the film’s “through the eyes of a newcomer” plot device, Logan Lerman as Norman (“normal”), a wet-everywhere clerk shoved in with all these cold-hearted killers.
Lerman’s a terrific young actor who’s played the “new kid” role a few other times in films like the wonderful Perks of Being a Wallflower as well as the Percy Jackson franchise and The Three Musketeers. But as Fury’s Ishmael, Norman is more than just the audience’s point-of-view entrance point into the front-line tank crew.
At first, he faces blistering rejection by the tight-knit team (his inexperience can get them killed), but step-by-step he’s taught harsh lessons—usually intentionally by Collier, who has no compunction about executing prisoners in order to teach his new soldier how to not just kill, but embrace it. We watch Norman become more like the hardened Fury crew until he’s firing away while shouting “Fuck you, fucking Nazis!” with the rest of them.
Bernthal and Pena are both also good in the film, working with the usual war-movie cut-out characters, but it’s LaBeouf who steps up and forcefully reminds us that, beyond the Transformer movies and moronic headlines, he’s still a tremendous actor, the kind who seems to effortlessly lose himself in a character with a mix of naturalism and thespian skill.
Fury is, however, ultimately a “Brad Pitt movie,” and as usual Pitt steps up and does fine, grizzled work. (Though they share a war and a Southern accent, despite critics’ lazy comparisons, Collier is not just Pitt dusting off his cartoonish Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds.) We don’t learn much about Don Colliers the pre-war civilian, but that’s Ayers’ point: that man doesn’t exist anymore; there is only sad, tired, angry Wardaddy.
But since, for the most part, the film is trying to stay in the Cineplex mainstream, its early hints at Collier’s cold-hearted brutality—hell, his outright war crimes—are soon swept aside for a more palatable protective and flawed father figure with an iconic square jaw and firm gaze. (And a shirtless torso that suggests there was room for a Bowflex machine inside the tank.)
The rare time we see Collier acting like a normal human being is during a sedate domestic interlude designed specifically for that purpose, wherein he and Norman take R&R in the apartment of a German woman (Anamaria Marinca) and her niece (Alicia von Rittberg). The scene is calculated to coax some distant memory of “why we fight” civilized decency out of Collier, complete with piano playing and fresh eggs. But as the rest of the crew arrive, it also serves as an ugly reminder that the Americans are a conquering force, treating, with barely contained aggression, all food, shelter, and females as theirs for the taking.
(An aside: As Ayers ratchets the tension up in that apartment scene, Pena’s character makes a series of typical male wisecracks about women and drink. Though intended as jokes by the character, the comments are not supposed to be funny in the context of the film’s moment, thick as it is with the threat of rape—instead they play as cruel, even chilling.
(Except to the preview audience I saw the film with, which, during this scene and others, howled uproariously at what it saw as gallows humor comic relief. We are programmed to be entertained and amused at all times, even if it means missing the point.)
Quiet interludes aside, Fury works best in its powerful and effective battle scenes—for all his interest in things like the Evil Men Do in the Name of Good and Can a Crooked Man Walk a Straight Path, Ayers remains an action director at heart, albeit one with artsy aspirations. While some non-battle sections of Fury fall back on cheap Bible quotes, brotherhood themes, and an annoyingly “this is how you should feel” obtrusive musical score, the actual fighting crackles with terrifying and compelling energy even as the screen fills with smoke and haze.
But just as he never lets the film’s gore spill for its own sake, Ayers also never lets the audience truly celebrate an exciting battle scene. His action beats are visceral but never video-game voyeuristic, and while the crew of the Fury may come out on top, the fight itself is so loud, so nerve-wracking, and won at such brutal costs, what thrills we’re allowed feel less like entertainment and more like edification.
As a film, Fury has its issues—Ayers has a lot to say and does so with a lot of energy, but while this is a major step forward, he’s yet to get it all working completely in tandem in a film. So, like its titular tank, Fury sometimes thematically starts and stops, lurching and stalling between its desire for realism and its adherence to war-movie clichés. (Not to mention its taste for poetic visual symbolism—like white horses and pretty roadside war orphans—that sometimes works, sometimes wobbles.)
Unlike pieces of propaganda trash like this year’s reprehensible 300: Rise of an Empire, Fury is not out to glorify fantasy war for teenage boys, nor is it trying to add yet another layer of reverent varnish to our cultural memory of the Greatest Generation. (It also eschews any cheap patriotic sentimentality.) It’s main thesis is more interesting than just that war is hell, and it does its best to avoid earnest 21st-century hand-wringing over the psychological trauma combat inflicts on its participants.
Instead, Fury is about just that: fury. No matter what “good” reasons there may be for going to war, ultimately it comes down to someone having to kill other human beings, and unless you’re a sociopath, ideology can only provide so much moral cover for killing in the name of national interests. Ultimately for soldiers like Collier and his men to survive they wear their rage like armor, becoming engines of angry destruction aimed at Berlin. (In what feels like a script cheat and plot device designed to let “Good Germans” off the villainous hook, Collier narrows his hatred of his enemy to the S.S. in particular, making them feel a bit like ginned-up “Movie Bad Guys” more suited for an Indiana Jones movie.)
Regardless of what characters survive to the finish of the film, its closing credits remind us that in order to do so—in order to win—the “good guys” had to let themselves be consumed by the very fury that carried and protected them. To that end, all of Fury’s on-screen graphic violence feels not just justified but necessary.