If nothing else, Fury achieves something that no other Hollywood movie about the Second World War I’ve seen has ever done – it makes the allied troops appear as completely and utterly reprehensible as their German enemies. I once read an interview with Austrian director Michael Haneke after he’d been Academy Award nominated for Amour where he claimed that the idea of making a film about the Second World War (specifically the holocaust) was “unspeakable”. This was due to the simplification of a complex situation into good and evil narratives – even if it is the only war where the good and evil lines are clearly drawn.
The masterstroke of Fury is by showing how war has turned these men into cold-hearted killing machines, only perched one space above the Nazis on the stairway towards the moral high ground. The film’s downfall is the final half hour, when it remembers we are supposed to root for these characters in a climactic battle against the Germans. This is a significant failure that derails the entire film. How am I supposed to care about the survival of characters who are complete and utter bastards, even if they are admittedly only bastards by circumstance?
The film is set in Germany in the last week of the second World War, where out of desperation Hitler has declared total war, mobilising every man, woman and child. Young typewriter Norman (Logan Lerman) is thrown headfirst into the war, joining fellow allied troops in the “fury” tank after their driver becomes a war casualty. Leading this troop is Don Collier (Brad Pitt), a man who is initially painted as being an extension of Pitt’s character in Inglourious Basterds before it reveals he has an even bigger lack of conscience, forcing young Norman to partake in acts of violence that eventually break him down until he becomes one of them. Also on the tank are a religious pain-in-the-ass who talks about god at every opportunity (Shia LaBeouf), an underwritten character played by Michael Pena (is there any other kind?) and a hillbilly psychopath played in the most gleefully histrionic way imaginable by Jon Bernthal.
The reason I enjoyed the film (in the early stages) was the fact it portrayed every single war element with an element of pacifism. The best scene in the film has Norman being forced to murder a Nazi soldier, something which he refuses to do, instead pleading to be shot instead. To add to the horror, this all plays out whilst a number of allied onlookers are besides themselves with laughter – they all lost their sense of empathy a long time ago, so anybody with any trace of human emotion is a bizarre anomaly. Moments like this recall Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film Paths of Glory, but with an even more apparent pacifist theology and significantly ballsier approach to its horrific subject matter.
Yet the biggest comparison for me isn’t a war film (or anti-war film), but a film that shows the horrors of forced masculinity. That is 1971 Australian thriller Wake in Fright, in which a middle class schoolteacher finds his holiday averted when he arrives accidentally in “the Yabba”, a place where he is forced to drink and gamble by the townsfolk until he loses his sanity. I initially thought of this after a scene of murder that’s interrupted by LaBeouf’s character praying for everyone’s souls (despite committing what is a basic religious act of sin); in Wake in Fright, bars frequently interrupt their patrons drinking time to blast out prayers over the loudspeakers.
I haven’t been a fan of director David Ayer’s previous films, especially considering his previous two have been the trigger-happy likes of End of Watch and the already-forgotten Arnold Schwarzenegger flop Sabotage. Whereas those films took great delight in the onscreen carnage, this feels like it was made by a completely different director; the characters here aren’t made out to be likable like they were in the aforementioned two efforts, which means that we get an accurate impression of the horror of war as it turns characters who would be the heroes of any other movie into characters who don’t exist as protagonists or antagonists.
Ayer’s stylistic sensibility in his previous films was somewhat lacking too. I personally hate the found footage genre, so nothing annoyed me more than End of Watch, a found footage movie that repeatedly forgets it is a found footage movie in order to get some aerial shots of downtown LA or characters who wouldn’t be being filmed by the character with a camera. If that wasn’t bad enough, he has a tendency to use shaky-cam in order make the scenes seem more “gritty” and “realistic”. One scene in End of Watch where Jake Gyllenhall punched the camera (which was now a POV shot of a criminal somehow) deployed this technique to the worst effect I’ve ever seen, making everything incomprehensible to the point I considered turning the thing off. Fury has none of these badly stylised tics – in fact, cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (who is responsible for making End of Watch as visually ugly as it was) appears to be inspired by Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
In that film, Malick’s camera repeatedly ignored the war happening to show insects still living their lives as normal whilst battle unfolded around them. Here, Vasyanov takes similar long takes, albeit in a more audience friendly manner. The opening shot of a horse walking toward camera, only to have the soldier on its back killed, is a great example of this; it shows how nature is unfazed by the horrors of man, with no change in emotion even when it’s reclaimed by the allied soldiers after being in the hands of the Nazis. It’s also similar to that film in how it shows the psychological deterioration of people at war.
The climactic battle sequence with the Nazis, when good and evil lines become clearly drawn and these unlikable characters become people we have to start rooting for by default, is when the film becomes uninteresting. Ayer has, up until this point, managed to make a movie that shows the horrors of the war in a way that doesn’t do a disservice to the good job the allied troops did in defeating the Nazis, but still manages to portray them as emotionally vacant souls, wounded by the events unfolding around them. To answer the infamous question: war, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.