Written and directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch,” 2012), “Fury” is set in April 1945—the European Theater’s final leg in World War II. Allies are making headway into Nazi Germany, despite desperate resistance from the enemy. Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt; “Killing Them Softly,” 2012) has just lost the assistant driver of his tank—called the “Fury”—forcing inexperienced clerk Norman (Logan Lerman; “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” 2012) to be a replacement for his crew. Collier’s faced with a double-edged sword of a challenge when he has to balance making Norman independent while protecting his five-person crew.
While it’s gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“The East,” 2011), Ayer makes the message of “Fury” crystal clear from the film’s opening shot—war is dirty, ugly, and never worth being romanticized, whether as part of revisionist history or in movies. The camera slowly pans through a dreary, foggy, and debris-filled landscape the writer-director wants viewers to experience. The visual storytelling doesn’t end there; Ayer intends to drill the tragedy of war through everyone’s brains in the most unsubtle way possible and follows this up sometime later with a shot where a tank crosses a heavy marshy land hiding the lifeless body of a human. The intent is to leave a lump down the audience’s throats, and if its writer and director’s filmmaking language is anything to go by, he seems to succeed through and through.
“Fury” relies on its poetic balance between cerebral and emotional storytelling. Its cerebral writing and direction focus on combat, deaths, and character (un)likability. The emotional side focuses on trauma, nuanced character arcs, and the internal ghost of the unlikable external shell. Ayer wants you to empathize with the psychological damage war causes those thrust into it but doesn’t let that veer him away from letting you know that none of these characters—apart from Norman to an extent—are likable or remotely good people. None of the soldiers here are glorified, nor is their strife romanticized for some hollow sense of patriotism.
His decisions succeed phenomenally because the characters feel consistently like real human beings. The audience doesn’t need to like its characters or relate to them. There will, however, be a significant chance they’ll be able to understand the circumstances that got them there. The crew’s decisions throughout the narrative are downright despicable at times. Jon Bernthal (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” 2013) plays Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis—probably the most unpleasant character of the group, but even here, he’s not turned into a caricaturish douchebag and gets his moments of vulnerability. Michael Peña (“American Hustle,” 2013) and Shia LaBeouf (“Nymphomaniac,” 2013) give us two extremes; the desperation to keep it together and the misery to end it all. And they’re both incredible at it.
However, most of the dramatic heft in “Fury” is shouldered by Pitt and Lerman. The former is unsurprisingly exceptional. He fires on all cylinders in a film that requires him to balance between being externally emotionless and internally emotionally vulnerable. Pitt’s character might look the part of a stereotypical leader of his crew, but—in a crucial and excellently acted scene—when he’s forced to move aside and give himself respite by emotionally breaking down and snapping out of it a few seconds later—you realize this is not the kind of war movie you end up seeing now and then. Lerman is the audience insert and the easiest to empathize with because of how suddenly he is—and by proxy, we are—transported into a situation he has zero experience. From his body language to the delivery of each dialogue, Lerman plays his role with restraint, making you want to tear through the screen and hug him.
Ultimately, “Fury” seems like a tough film to make precisely because of how easy it is to indulge in the romanticization of making a moving, awards-friendly war film. Tonally reminiscent of two stark opposites—“Apocalypse Now” and “The Thin Red Line”—the film blends an objective look at combat with an introspective point of view of how the horrors of war affect its many characters. Whether or not its realism works ultimately depends on the viewer, but I found it the most brutally honest war film that understands that sometimes, some things need to be told as they are. Filled with breathtaking cinematography, measured edit decisions by Dody Dorn (“Memento,” 2001), and gritty, white-knuckle action set pieces, Ayer’s newest is a necessary watch on the best cinema screen you can find.