The opening shot is like something from the apocalypse: a lone figure on horseback, a grey silhouette moving like a ghost among a graveyard of dead soldiers and the burning carcases of tanks. This is writer-director David Ayer’s Fury – his own, nightmarish take on the last days of World War II, a time when the Nazis were all the more dangerous in the throes of defeat.
Brad Pitt is the headline star, playing war-weary sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, but it’s Logan Lerman’s fresh recruit who provides the eyes and ears in Ayer’s story. Lerman plays Ellison, a typing clerk pressed into service as the co-driver of Fury, a US Sherman tank trundling through the fields of Germany, its crew’s task: to finally break the enemy’s will, soldier by soldier and town by town.
To Pitt’s Wardaddy, Norman and the rest of the crew (Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd, Michael Pena’s Garcia and Jon Bernthal’s Travis), the Fury is no less than their life support. She’s repeatedly patched up and pushed on through the corpse-strewn countryside, barely able to hold her own against the Germans’ better armoured, more powerful Panzer tanks. Ayer doesn’t depict the Fury’s crew as anything approaching saintly; it’s interesting to see how they square their righteousness and religiosity while they’re shooting prisoners of war and frightening terrified civilians. But they are, ultimately, human: frightened, haunted by what they’ve already been through and grimly resigned about what lies in front of them. “Best job in the goddamn world,” they say, swallowing back booze and bitter tears.
This isn’t Pitt’s first foray into the theatre of war, but it’s markedly different from his outing as Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Where Tarantino couldn’t help but filter the horrors of conflict through his own exploitation cinema-inspired sensibilities, Ayer goes for something earthy but no less heightened. Fury isn’t inspired by the grain of newsreel-style footage, as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was; rather, it’s closer to something like Sam Peckinpah’s extraordinarily powerful 1977 film Cross Of Iron. Fury imagines war as a kind of muddied, smoke-filled purgatory where nobility, heroism and piety are crushed underfoot. The desolate tone is underscored by Roman Vasyanov’s superb lighting and lensing and Steven Price’s chanting, Omen-like score.
Occasionally, Ayer finds moments of beauty in all the madness. The drivers of the battered Fury look up at one point and observe an incalculable number of fighter planes flying high in the sky like tiny white butterflies. A little later, we see a group of German refugees trudging through a loamy field like zombies, clutching the last of their belongings. One is still wearing her tattered wedding dress.
Ayer’s End Of Watch, the superb found-footage cop thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, imagined South Central Los Angeles as a hellish place where a horrific crime seemed to lurk behind every door. It was a nail-biting, unvarnished film, and it’s hard to believe the same director shot the gritty but ultimately brash and disappointing Schwarzenegger vehicle, Sabotage, just one year later.
Fury sees Ayer back on form, bringing the same sense of danger to the fields and towns of Germany in April 1945 as he did South Central LA circa 2012. Rare moments of calm are punctuated by the sickening jolt of a distant city pounded by Allied aircraft. Snipers potentially lurk in every hedgerow. There are mines buried in the mud. The SS have pressed ordinary civilians into service as guerrilla soldiers.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, from Jason Isaacs in a small role as a war-weary US army captain to LaBeouf’s emotionally exhausted Boyd. Lerman, who’s often starred in lightweight fare such as Paul WS Anderson’s The Three Musketeers in the past, gets a far meatier role to play here, and he seizes the opportunity with evident hunger. There’s a genuine chemistry between he and the fearsome Wardaddy, an unpredictable and even dislikeable figure whose true personality only becomes evident later on. Like everyone else aboard Fury, he’s simply doing his best and hoping that the enemy waves the white flag sooner rather than later. It’s a quiet, introspective performance from Pitt.
Fury is tense and absorbing in its occasional moments of drama, and nail-biting during its battle scenes. We get the sense of claustrophobia and camaraderie among the crew pressed together inside the tank’s metal bulk, and the physical effort it takes to wrest the Fury around the battlefield. Outside, machine gun fire zips by in neon-hued streaks. Bodies are crushed beneath steel tracks. There’s a moment where soldiers writhe in the earth, the Fury looming up against an orange, smoke-streaked night sky. It’s a war painting by way of Hieronymus Bosch.
Ayer tells his story almost exclusively from the perspective of his American soldiers, but Fury is by no means a good-versus-evil war film. Once the terrible gears of conflict grind into action, the only thing ordinary rank-and-file soldiers can do is take aim and pray for the best. If there is a ray of hope in Fury, it’s in the suggestion that, on either side of the fence, irrespective of uniform, there are ordinary human beings, clinging to life and to each other.
Fury is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd October.
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