The 2012 thriller End of Watch left an indelible mark on my psyche with unexpected violence and its examination of brotherhood under pressure. David Ayer builds on such themes, and raises his game, with the outstanding WWII tank drama, Fury.
In the opening minutes of Fury, Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier rides on horseback amongst the corpses of the most recent German battle. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s low-angle wide shot instantly portrays Collier as a mythical figure; a man destined to ride alone. Within minutes, however, the poetic grays transform to the bloody reds and the filthy uniforms of the 2nd Armored Division, or what remains of them. The unit has fought Germans throughout North Africa, Sicily, D-Day and their mobile home come in the form of a M4A3E8 Sherman tank. As Collier returns to “Fury,” his men welcome him back and the family unit recollects themselves for the next battle. Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) stars as the perpetually sad technician Boyd “Bible” Swan, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) as the slimy Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, Michael Peña (End of Watch) as the comedic/profound Trini “Gordo” Garcia and Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) as the typist sent into battle, Private Norman Ellison.
It’s not difficult to recognize the conflicts that will arise amongst the Band of Brothers, however each actor owns their role and brings exceptional depth to their respective characters. The voice of Pitt’s Staff Sergeant Collier sounds almost exactly the same as his character from Quentin Tarantino’s WWI film Inglorious Basterds, Aldo “The Apache” Raine. Only Collier doesn’t smile like The Apache. He doesn’t smile at all. Within minutes, the sorrowful eyes of Wardaddy convey the importance of his domineering persona — something Private Ellison must come to grips with. Ayers doesn’t shy away from the obligatory solider-not-ready-for-war storyline, but the manner in which Collier handles the typist’s fear will make viewers ask themselves important questions beyond “what would you do?” As Collier reminds Ellison, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”
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Bernthal’s maniacal Travis mutates his face and displays his grimy teeth constantly, which makes it’s hard not to think of him as “that guy” in a war movie, at least early on. What’s special about Bernthal’s performance is the dynamic with Ellison, who he rides consistently about the realities of war. If there’s anything that Ellison seems to love, Travis will be sure to snatch it away, thus preparing the young solider for war. At least that’s how I perceive the character 24 hours after watching the film. En passant, Michael Peña’s hilarious Gordo brings a somewhat mystical vibe to his unit. He’s been places – they’ve all been places – but his manner of speech puts his comrades at ease during the pre-battle moments and allows them to laugh at the most distressing moments. Gordo drinks too much, but not enough to lose his Gentleman card. Meanwhile, Shia LeBeouf’s “Bible” Swan is perhaps the most sympathetic character of Fury; a man who has accepted the idea of the real word as only a fairy tale.
Ayer’s direction brings viewers inside the tank, inside “Fury”, as Ellison makes the difficult choice of whether he will be a soldier or remain a typist. It’s one of the more remarkable battle scenes I’ve seen both in physical action and the dissection of the human element. On the flip side, Ayer also produces an unforgettable sequence of dining room bliss, or what appears to be, as the unit takes a German town and discovers two women hiding in their home. This particular scene has various degrees of tension, peace and fright that made my jaw drop — the point of no return. Every actor has their moment to shine, including the two German actresses, most notably Alicia von Rittberg (Barbara). Ayer finds a way to hint at Collier’s past, along with Ellison’s future, and drops his own directorial bomb with the arrival of the “Fury” crew.
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The dialogue, written by Ayer, effectively demonstrates how the soldiers learned to interact with each other, but Logan Lerman isn’t given anything especially memorable. In fact, he often repeats what someone has already said. For example, if one of his comrades quotes a bible verse, Lerman’s Ellison will tilt his head and repeat the last word. It works, I guess, although the character could have been afforded more personality. But maybe that’s Ayer’s point — we know enough. Private Ellison is scared shitless and his previous life doesn’t matter to his comrades. “Don’t get too close to anyone,” says Collier upon their first meeting.
What makes Fury unique as a piece of filmmaking is Ayer’s propensity to remind of how disposable we are as human beings. Bodies are consistently shown being crushed, legs are ripped away…it’s the usual violence but it’s the motion and timing of Ayer’s direction that makes it relevant to the film as a whole.
Fury is one of those rare films that takes you out of your seat, grabs you by the shoulders and looks you directly in the eyes. Don’t talk back, just watch and listen.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor and chief film critic.