Films have portrayed war in many different ways, but in Fury, writer/director David Ayer captures the sense that human conflict on a vast scale truly becomes a sort of hell on Earth. There is very little sunlight in Fury; the skies are either overcast, darkened by nightfall or blotted out by swirling smoke and flame. It’s as if the sun itself has been shot out of the sky by an errant shell, effectively and appropriately covering the landscape in a gray and tattered shroud. Out of the smoke and ash emerges shapes: twisted, shredded knots of charcoal that used to be human beings lie abandoned and half-buried in mud, while the roaring, clanking boxes of death known as Sherman tanks (or, on the German side, Tigers) roll past them like mechanized dinosaurs.
It’s a nightmarish, nihilistic vision and it’s where Ayers firmly plants a five-man tank crew lead by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), who has led his men through every theater of this war until they now find themselves in Germany in 1945, chasing the desperate yet unrelenting Nazi troops. Collier and his men — Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — have also finally lost one of their own, the assistant driver Red, and sent to take his place is young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), an Army typist who suddenly finds himself on the front lines. His first assignment is to clean Red’s face off the inside of the tank (which is named “Fury” by the men). His second is to learn as quickly as possible how to kill.
Collier and his men are exhausted, disheveled, permanently covered in a film of sweat and grime. They’re in a sort of primal state of being. They also function as a well-oiled, battle-tested unit, and Norman’s entry into that tight-knit dynamic upsets the equation, much to Collier’s displeasure. But he has no choice in the matter — none of them do — and for the next 24 hours he, Norman and the others must plunge into the heart of enemy territory while seizing town after town, killing as many Nazis as they can and defending the Allies’ supply line.
That is the narrative thrust of Fury and throughout its episodic 135-minute running time Ayer shoves us into the war at its most brutal and visceral. The tank battle scenes — complete with multi-colored artillery tracers that look like laser beams imported from a sci-fi film — are among the most powerful and thrilling I’ve seen in a modern war movie. The machines, menacing on the outside yet claustrophobic coffins on the inside, rumble and circle around each other, sending out blasts that turn soldiers into either flaming husks or smears of splattered flesh and blood. It’s blunt and ugly and the tension is almost unbearable.
It’s when the battle stops that Ayer’s movie runs into trouble. Unlike the partners in his tough LAPD movie End of Watch, his characters here are stock — Collier is the gruff CO who loves his boys but acts the stern father figure; Boyd, as his nickname makes obvious, is the religious one; Grady is the redneck animal; and Garcia the token Hispanic who mutters in his native tongue under his breath. Lerman’s Norman, meanwhile, is the nervous, fumbling, wide-eyed initiate who you know will be mowing down Germans left and right by the end of his character arc because that is how he is supposed to end up. It hardly seems feasible that a typist with no combat experience would be thrown into such a high-stakes position and become a seasoned killer in just 24 hours (that’s the time frame of the film), but that’s all that defines the character.
That’s not to say the cast isn’t good — the five of them are actually excellent, starting with the eternally underrated Pitt, who does a quietly effective job of transmitting the sheer fatigue and perhaps even trauma underneath Collier’s steely exterior. But they’re all given so little to work with in terms of who these men really are that the film creates an emotional distance. The most glaring example of this is an extended sequence halfway through the film where Pitt and Lerman share some civilized time with two German women in an apartment in the town they’ve just captured. The scene goes on far too long and stops and starts awkwardly. It has so little forward motion and the actors seem so unsure of what to do that it almost plays out like some improvisational theater stuck into the middle of this war movie.
The true realization, however, that the movie is missing that key component comes during the final third, in which the men make a brave (although perhaps foolhardy) stand at a crossroads on their broken tank against a battalion of 300 SS officers. It’s almost certainly a suicide mission — and Pitt’s reasons for undertaking it are opaque, even if the movie almost demands a “last stand” scenario. When some of the men inevitably fall, their deaths are shocking but not especially moving. The religious subtext gets a little heavy-handed here as well, with Collier and Boyd trading Bible quotes and the very last overhead shot of the tank at the crossroads implying an unmistakable Christian image of the ultimate sacrifice. But if there was a God present during this war, he certainly wasn’t hanging around Germany in ’45.
It’s some of that heavy-handedness and the character deficiencies in the script that stop Fury from being a great war movie. It’s still a pretty good one though. It puts us right into the middle of the sheer misery, terror and destructiveness of combat, and its scenes of the aftermath of battle are haunting and hard to forget. But both the story and the stereotypical characters fail to transcend their simplistic beginnings and do not turn this into a greater drama about these five men and what years of warfare has done and is doing to them. Ironically, Ayer’s war movie lacks the one thing that he probably wanted to infuse it with the most: a heart.
Fury opens in theaters this Friday (October 17).