Despite the confusion bred by the opening line of Edwin Starr’s 1969 classic soul track, we do actually know what war is good for. War is a metal machine which in its indefatigable forward momentum chews up young men and women to leave nothing but broken corpses in its wake. That metaphor is made real by the titular M4A3E8 Sherman tank at the core of Fury, writer-director David Ayer’s heart-thumping and eardrum-rattling WWII drama that follows a weary US tank crew led by Brad Pitt’s Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier as they fight to survive the last days of the war deep in Nazi infested Germany.
Their survival is threatened by the addition of Pvt. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), the replacement for their regular bow-gunner who most recently met a grisly end. Norman, an Army typist completely green in the ways of war who has been sent to the frontlines before the ink on his enlistment papers have barely had time to dry, is all naive idealism and innocent virtues. This is much to the annoyance of rest of the battle-hardened veterans in the crew: gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), loader Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), and driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña).
What follows is an education in visceral horror for both Norman and the audience, as pre-conceived ideas of morality and what makes a “good man” are blown apart in stark, unflinching violence. Lots of violence. “Wait until you see… what a man can do to another man,” LaBeouf’s scripture-quoting Bible grimly warns Norman in one scene. And its an apt warning, as Ayer’s gritty tour of duty never shies away from the stomach-turning carnage – pulped bodies, blown off limbs and gaping wounds are the order of the day here – doled out quite often by the very hands of our “heroes”.
These men are as far removed from your stereotypical white hats as can be. They are often almost villainous in their behaviour – they engage in cold-blooded murder and more – having had most of their humanity erased long ago by years of being elbow-deep in gore and tragedy. And yet, Ayer’s script deftly undercuts these characters’ monstrous darkness with rare moments of nobility – and in so doing prompts a sincere sense of empathy from the audience. This is realized magnificently by all the actors but in particular through Pitt and LaBeouf.
Pitt’s Wardaddy is a maelstrom of conflicting emotions, a supremely confident and brave-faced leader but also a terrified, trembling soldier. He’s mercilessly executing German soldiers one instant and showing unexpected tenderness to German citizens over something as mundane as breakfast the next, and the three-time Oscar nominee makes it all work supremely convincingly. Similarly, LaBeouf’s defiantly spiritual character is a font of believable emotion (reminding us that underneath all the off-set antics there’s still a potent actor) and the two men act as a catalyst for many of the film’s moral quandaries – “Does Jesus love Adolf Hitler?,” Pitt’s Wardaddy posits to LaBeouf’s Bible with a mocking smile in one scene.
There’s also a sense of authentic hard-won camaraderie that pervades the crew, perhaps as a result of the grueling preparation the actors did, living in the tank (including all bodily functions) for extended periods of time. With their constant snipping and prodding, often at the expense of newbie Norman, this family may be severely dysfunctional, but they’re undoubtedly still a family. There’s a clear affection on display here that should be at odds with all the diesel-powered machismo thrown at the screen, but through intensely believable renditions of multi-layered characters, it all works.
And that juxtaposition of elements is personified in Logan Lerman’s Norman. The young actor turns in a sterling performance, as we watch the character morph before our eyes as his innocence is slowly killed, bit by bit, by the waking nightmare he finds himself in.
But it’s not all character study work though, as Ayer often has you racked with tension through the film’s incredibly well-engineered battle scenes. The director’s intent was to bring tank warfare to the screen as authentically as possible – including the shocking damage a HE tank shell can do to a human body! – and here he succeeded beyond measure, with one tank vs tank battle in particular being a masterpiece of both suspense and fist-pumping action. If there’s a slight on the film, it’s that the film’s epic action-packed climax does get a fraction too gung-ho, as logic is sometimes replaced with cliched Hollywood hero deification. It’s still bloody rousing though!
And cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, who did such incredibly inventive work with Ayer on End of Watch, shoots it all with an eerily artistic approach. The content may be gritty, grimy and often just plain nightmarish, but Vasyanov frames it all in such a way that these scenes of carnage often have an artistic beauty to them. And his efforts are helped along tremendously by an incredible score from composer Steven Price, swelling hearts with a haunting signature theme.
With the previously mentioned End of Watch, Ayer proved that he was a talent behind the camera, but then promptly undid all that goodwill with the repugnant Sabotage. In hindsight though, Sabotage was almost a training run for Fury, as it contains several of the same qualities: broken “heroes”, in your blown-off-face violence, probing of morality and a sense of brotherhood born only from the shared heat of combat. In Fury though, he just does it all so much better. This renewed technical and emotional proficiency results in what is undoubtedly the best war movie to come along in years. You’ll be fury-ious with yourself if you miss this one.
Last Updated: January 30, 2015