Fury is a tricky movie to place. Its mud-caked soldiers and grisly violence would seem to protest the horrors of war whereas its Bible-spouting Americans and blanket prejudice of the Waffen SS would suggest its thirst for justice. Complicating things further is writer-director David Ayer’s unfailing loyalty to his protagonists, a five man tank crew that, warts-and-all, he fawns over more than anyone else. One sure thing is that Ayer does his best to dress down the “good war.” Under the patina of a classic WWII boys-on-a-mission adventure, he dredges up the more complex emotions of combat, trying to reconcile his love of old-fashioned war movies with a mature, farsighted sensibility. As a result, Fury is a tonal mess. One moment he gives over to the haggard gazes of German POWs, another he channels Leni Riefenstahl, shooting a German column marching en masse like it were a wave of destruction, scored by an overblown orchestra and ominous German chanting. Ayer glorifies war, but how he presents it leaves you aghast. As is made clearer by the crew of the tank Fury over the course of the movie, war is no more a noble undertaking than it is a coldly executed job. Or as the crew’s pseudo-ironic mantra goes, “Best job I ever had.”
So soaked in clichés is Fury, and so stony-faced is its execution, that it’s difficult to imagine anything subversive about it at first, especially after an ad campaign that played up the most labored of its plot beats. Ayer doesn’t play for subtlety, and he gets his point across by following the transformation of Logan Lerman’s Norman from clean cut typist to hardened killer after joining Brad Pitt’s tank during the final push into Germany. It’s the dawn of a new era, Brad Pitt playing the grizzled vet, as he takes over a role that would’ve suited Lee Marvin at his craggiest. His clearly enunciated, occasionally tin-eared, declarative line readings reinforce Ayer’s historical perspective, that war is, if not ideal, nevertheless inevitable. Keeping his tank crew close at heart, Ayer eschews patriotism, focusing instead on the process of dehumanization, depicted as close to literally as possible by the crew’s assimilation into Fury, and the camaraderie that replaces ordinary civility. The crew’s nicknames are simplistic to a fault, Norman’s the most on the nose, reflecting their place in a military unit more than they signify anything to do with their personality. When Pitt’s Sergeant Collier and Norman enjoy a brief return to domesticity in the apartment of two German women, the remainder of the crew gatecrash their meal, so rudely disrupting the peace that Collier can only quell their behavior with his own show of wartime barbarism. Even he flouts social mores at first by expecting sexual favors in return for a carton of fresh eggs upon his and Norman’s arrival, though his demands are halfway excused as false bravado to hook Norman up with their hostess.
In keeping with his macro view of history, Ayer embraces war’s magnifying properties, simultaneously encouraging its mythology while showing its toll on the human spirit. That’s the only way one can explain his use of a buckshot-like musical score that figures in marching hymns, medieval choirs, and a mix of classical and modern instruments to elicit the strongest possible emotion at any given moment. Its the only way to defend the way he edits his action scenes, with Michael Pena’s Gordo shown in close up urging Fury forward before cutting to a shot of a German’s head exploding under its tracks. Many of his hero shots are unexpectedly gruesome, provoking conflicted feelings about Fury’s crew as they charge their way into history, the war heroes for future generations. The crew don’t think this highly of themselves, and Ayer only pretends to in a bid to juxtapose their harrowing means to a victorious end. Fury isn’t the kind of movie dedicated to anyone’s memory, and beyond its wider context it doesn’t claim to be true. Ayer isn’t trying to inspire anything beyond sympathy for five men trapped in a metal box surrounded by fire.
If there’s one thing to redeem Ayer’s tonal and narrative deficiencies, it’s the action. Ayer goes to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of tank warfare. Though some artistic license is likely on his part, it’s inspiring to see his careful consideration of tanks’ role in infantry support and actual combat capabilities. Two set pieces involving frontal assaults on a fixed position and a lone Tiger tank are especially striking, tensely edited without ever becoming indecipherable. Ayer and director of photography Roman Vasyanov scramble all over the battlefield to find the best shots, and they achieve a great many without falling back on the dreaded shakycam. From images of hanging bodies to a fantastic ground shot of fighter planes intercepting a bombing group, they ably immerse the audience in a surreal, fearful environment, everything taking the color of dug-up earth. The final action scene may be too far a stretch of the imagination, and Fury herself never quite becomes the mystical totem Ayer is hoping for, but this mid-budget war movie has more guts than most, and the willingness to admit that as horrible as war is, it can’t help but be fascinated by it.