World War II is an event rife for cinematic adaptation. The last 12 months alone have seen the relase of The Book Thief, The Railway Man, and The Monuments Men – all dealing with different aspects of the conflict and its fallout. There are so many disparate pieces to the war that it has inspired hundreds of films. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to add another name to that list: David Ayer’s Fury.
Brad Pitt stars as Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the man in charge of the eponymous tank. The rest of the crew consists of Technician Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Corporal Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), and Private First Class Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). Fury’s assistant driver – a man who has been with the tank and his fellow soldiers since the war began – is killed in action before the film opens, and now the crew find themselves saddled with Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a fresh recruit with no training outside of typing. All of a sudden Norman finds himself waging war with four men he has just met – men who seem to have died with their comrade, only their hearts have yet to stop beating.
That’s actually giving the characters a little more credit than they are due. Each soldier is a bit of a cut-out with one defining trait. Norman is the fearful rookie; Bible is (of course) a proselytizing Jesus freak; Gordo is “Mexican;” and Grady is an angry dunce. Collier is the only one given much dimension by Ayer’s screenplay, and that allows Pitt to focus on injecting as much emotion as he can into the performance. He is really great here. The rest of the cast has to work harder to make the characters work, and some are more successful than others. For several years it has been gauche to admire LaBeouf’s acting abilities, but his comprehensive performance as Bible is as impressive as anything else he has done. Peña – one of my favorite character actors – doesn’t come off smelling nearly as well, but at least he doesn’t stink the way Bernthal’s over-acted turn does.
It really seems as though Ayer is more interested in battle and it’s consequences anyway. The battle scenes are visceral and harsh and very well directed, particularly a scene of tank-on-tank action that is gripping despite the fact that its main players are two slow-moving hulks of metal.
The characters are most alive when inside the tank, and Ayer gives us a great sense of life inside this can, the same way he so effectively showed life on the job in End of Watch. The film is almost a bottle movie, at least during the parts that matter. A long stretch in the middle where the crew dines with a couple of German women is distracted and misguided, lacking any real impact, save superficial motivation for Lerman’s Norman.
Norman specifically is a problem for Fury. The evolution of the character muddies the film’s message, which is more concerned with showing the horrors of war than anything else. We see a lot of terrible things through Norman’s eyes, and that is incredibly effective, but his transition from naive clerk to killer undermines the anti-war feel of the story. This complexity works in reflection, but in practice – when the music swells triumphantly as Norman guns down German soldiers – it comes across as confused. This nuance applies well to Pitt’s portrayal, wherein we constantly see the pain etched in his face, but Lerman may not have the chops just yet to pull that off.
Fury is kind of like the war it depicts; in hindsight it is an effective (and perhaps even a good) idea, but when you’re in the midst of it something just doesn’t feel right. Fury shows us the war in all it’s gory glory, but keeps us from experiencing it as intensely as we could.