Brad Pitt’s new tank drama, Fury, is an unrelentingly grim affair that strives for greatness and occasionally reaches it. What could have been reduced to ‘300 in a tank’ has been expanded to a gripping human drama that values the soul just as much as the body. Death can come at any time, from the earth or from the heavens, as we journey through hell inside the belly of a beast. What makes Fury transcendent is its unflinching portrayal of warfare, and its unsettling recognition that no armor is thick enough to protect us from the carnage.
Perhaps life is always cheap during times of war, but it’s positively cut-rate when the writing is on the wall. It’s April of ’45 and World War II is drawing to a close in the European Theater. Everyone, even Hitler and his SS officers, knows it’s over, but they dutifully play out the last cards of their losing hand. The Allies, on the other hand, turn their focus to resource management; maximizing the ground movements of soldiers and equipment along the inexorable path to Berlin. And when it comes to the ground game, the tank is a valuable commodity.
Fury follows the 5-man crew of one such tank, as they push deeper into enemy territory. Led by their hardened commander, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), the crew aboard Fury is a mish-mash of American culture. You have the crass redneck, Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), who was probably bullying weaker classmates before the war. Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LaBeouf) is a true believer who uses his faith to explain why he has survived while so many others have died. Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) was the life of the party before he drowned in a sea of blood and guts. Lastly, there is the newbie, Norman (Logan Lerman), whose first official act of duty is cleaning fragments of a man’s face off his weapons console. Their lives inside the tank consist of two things: the mission and each other. That’s enough for them, and it’s more than enough for some riveting cinema.
Written and directed by David Ayer, Fury intersperses periods of quiet intensity between its epic tank battles. While it’s unlikely many audience members will understand the ordinance and tactical commands, it hardly matters given the sheer visceral magnitude of the battle scenes. Percussive firefights rock the earth as tracer rounds ricochet off metal and splinter flesh. Tree lines disintegrate under the relentless bombardment and men disappear in flashes of smoke and fire. It’s exciting and disturbing, and captures the dual essence of warfare with a stark eye toward realism.
Because death lurks beneath every stone and behind every latched door, you can never feel safe. Even quieter moments, such as when Wardaddy and Norman share a civilized meal with two German ladies, are choked with a sense of impending doom. It’s a brilliant narrative stroke by Ayer that when that doom finally arrives, it’s not from German soldiers, but from Fury’s own crew. To drop the façade of cruel killing machines, even for a spot of tea and potatoes, is unacceptable. To forget where you are is to lose your edge.
That edge becomes the primary thematic concern for Ayer’s script. Your shell must remain hard at all times, while your insides churn with fury, hatred and true belief. Just like a tank, the outside armor makes it strong, but the men inside are what make it dangerous. Religious symbolism and faith abound in Fury, but it’s clear these men can only afford to believe in one another. Someone may be watching over their soul from above, but their comrades are watching their back.
It’s true that Fury doesn’t offer any new insight into the general concept of warfare. We’ve seen all these ‘comrades in arms’ and ‘war is hell’ tropes before. The script, too, is extremely episodic, with the crew of Fury moving methodically from mission to mission, plot point to plot point. This is why the character of Norman is so critical; the movie might not have a cohesive storyline, but Norman has a definitive character arc to carry us along. We watch him transform from a terrified boy of questionable fortitude, to a trusted member of the team who is willing to die for the cause.
Still, this is a terrific technical achievement from a unique perspective within the theater of war—a tank. Cinematographer, Roman Vasyanov, keeps everything hewn from the earth, shrouded with smoke and caked in a layer of ever-present mud. The score by Steven Price (Gravity) is also a triumph, featuring a soaring main theme and several standout selections that exquisitely complement the action. The performances are appropriately understated, with each actor receiving their quiet moment to shine. Pitt, especially, does a good job conveying the anguish of a man who can’t afford to show the toll this war has taken on him.
It’s likely that most of the talk surrounding Fury will focus on the impressive battle sequences, but this is far from your standard ‘big budget’ actionfest. This is an uncompromising look at what people must become to survive war. While it has some obvious flaws, this is an ambitious film that isn’t afraid to challenge your sensibilities. It’s hard to watch at times, but it’s impossible to look away.