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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Fury (2014)

* * *

Director: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LeBeouf

For much of its running time David Ayer's Fury plays like the best movie Sam Peckinpah never made. A WWII movie about the blood and the mud, rather than ideals and the honor inherent in fighting the last good war, Ayer's film is like a punch to the gut as it builds one scene of brutality atop another. This is a story of unrelenting ugliness where circumstances have made violence, in all its forms, as natural to the characters as breathing, and it unfolds in an unromanticized fashion - at least until the end, when it finally and fully surrenders to war movie cliches and conventions. To be sure, those conventions are present even from the beginning, but it's only at the end when the story seems to find itself at the mercy of those tropes. Still, despite the stock (and arguably weak) ending, Fury is a solid movie, possessed of the visceral intensity of a film like Saving Private Ryan, even if it lacks that kind of grand scale ambition.

Set during the dying days of the European theater, the "Fury" of the title is a Sherman tank manned by Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt), Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), who have been together now for years. Having just lost their assistant driver, the crew is given a replacement in the form of fresh-faced and wholly unprepared Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typist who has no combat training and has been handed over to the Fury out of necessity resulting from a lack of other options. Tasked with cleaning up the mess left inside the tank following the last mission, Norman is initiated into horror when he comes into contact not only with the blood of his predecessor, but half the man's face as well, an encounter which makes him sick and leaves him convinced that he's not up to going into battle. The rest of the crew is similarly unconvinced of his ability, especially after they set out and the members of another tank crew are killed as a result of Norman's hesitation to pull the trigger when he spots armed members of the Hitler Youth laying in wait. Determined to destroy Norman's innocence before it gets them all killed, Don later forces Norman to execute a captive German officer, and Norman's resulting trauma and humiliation softens the feelings of the rest of the crew towards him - at least temporarily.

Don takes further steps to "make a man" out of Norman when the crew participates in the capture of a German town. While the rest of the crew joins the drunken, pillaging, post-victory revelry in the streets, Don drags Norman into a building where they force their way into an apartment where two women are hiding out. Although it seems, at first, like Don has more brutal intentions, he instead gives the women a basket of eggs and while the older of the two women cooks them, and he washes up in a basin of hot water, Norman and the younger woman bond as they play a song on the piano. Afterwards Don prompts Norman to take the younger woman into the bedroom (some have characterized this as a rape scene, but I don't think it plays that way), and when they return they join Don and the older woman at the table. Whatever peace and normalcy both the soldiers and the women find together is brief, however, when the rest of the Fury crew bursts into the apartment, shattering the idyll with alcohol driven nastiness. As tensions in the apartment rise towards the breaking point, Don receives word that the crew is being given another mission and soon they're back on the road, tasked with holding down a crossroads which will find them outnumbered, outgunned, and possibly out of luck.

As written and directed by Ayer, Fury is a film that never shies away from the vicious and gory aspects of war. Bodies get blown apart, they get crushed underneath the tanks, they burn as they writhe in agony. Death, as it happens here, is not glorious but just another ugly act which serves to strip a man of the only scrap of humanity he had left: the mere fact that he was still alive. The soldiers are weary, exhausted, and emotionally broken by what they've seen and what they've done and they march forward not so much out of a sense of moral purpose, but because when they stop moving, they start thinking, and those memories are unbearable. This is most apparent in Don who, though he emerges as literally and figuratively the most battle-scarred member of the Fury crew and has a vicious streak that matches that of any of the other members, is haunted by the things he does even as he does them. Pitt's performance here has been written off in some corners as being little more than a replay of his performance in Inglorious Basterds, a criticism which I find egregiously facile. Both films are set during WWII and both characters are men who have no interest in taking prisoners, but beyond that the characters are different as night and day. One is a darkly comic character in an exaggerated, postmodern setting; the other is man struggling over his humanity in a gritty, more realist setting. Far from being a retread, Pitt's performance here is one of his most nuanced and compelling as he brings a heaviness and even vulnerability to the character which serves the film well in its quieter moments. The moments when Fury digs deep are inevitably the moments that Pitt and an equally solid Lerman share together, whether their characters are trying to carve out a private interlude of domesticity in the middle of destruction, battling over what Don can and cannot make Norman do, or coming to terms with where they've come to and what must happen next. The mentor/novice relationship is one that is far from new to movies, particularly war movies, but the relationship that develops between Don and Norman is one of the things that really works in Fury, and a lot of that is due to Pitt and Lerman.

But the things that really work in Fury are bridged by a lot of things that only kind of work and elements that are so commonplace that they feel more like narrative crutches than anything else. Though LaBoeuf manages to turn in a good performance as a character who is, basically, "the Bible guy," that doesn't make his character any less one-note, and the same must be said of the characters played by Pena and Bernthal. Aside from Don and Norman, the other members of the Fury crew never transcend their "types" to become fully fleshed people, as if the film itself has taken the advice that is given to Norman early on: don't bother getting to know anyone. Meanwhile, though the technical aspects of the film are superb, the creeping inevitability of the finale slowly erodes any notion that the film is offering a new or different take on the war movie. I won't spoil the ending, but if I were to lay out exactly what happens and exactly how it happens, I doubt that anyone who has ever seen a war movie before would be surprised by it. This doesn't make Fury a bad movie - it's excellent for what it is, but what it "is" is ultimately a fairly standard issue genre picture, albeit an especially violent one.

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