David Ayers’ Fury opens on a battlefield pockmarked with the waste of war, charred bodies laid out in broken circles around burned-out tanks. It is quiet. There is a literal lack of color thanks to what seems to be an early morning fog. A Nazi riding a white horse strolls through the shot, surveying the seemingly lifeless landscape. He pauses in front of a Sherman tank, its cannon emblazoned with “FURY” in white paint. A figure emerges from within, jumps onto the man on horseback, and stabs him in the face. This is Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier, and he means business.
The film, which takes place in 1945 Germany, unfolds at a time-bomb pace that mirrors that opening scene. Its soldiers — specifically Wardaddy’s crew of Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — live in periods of utter silence that break into brief, sustained chaos. Life at the end of the war is unsurprisingly unpredictable, as most of the soldiers’ missions consist of taking small towns in guerrilla skirmishes or venturing into the unknown in an attempt to rescue fellow Allied soldiers.
Fury is not so much about WWII as it is about these five soldiers and Fury, their tank. Director Ayers drives his vehicle-bound claustrophobia (Training Day, Ride Along) to new heights, relegating much of the story-telling to the confines of the tank, which is not only a tank but also a home, and Wardaddy’s soldiers are not only his soldiers but also his sons. It’s a bond not easily created, a point made exceptionally clear once Norman arrives.
Norman is a trained typist, has no battle experience, and is definitely not the hardened soldier his squadmates want or need. When he wipes out his section of the tank, he nearly vomits upon finding an intact portion of its former tenant’s face, eyeball and all. The camera lingers there several times, hammering home (perhaps too hard) that war is hell, and nobody — not the audience, not the soldiers — is going to avoid that reality.
When the soldiers head out on their first mission, the film returns to its quiet. A line of tanks, captained by soldiers who are all but best friends, slowly makes its way through heavily wooded Germany. And then, it’s not quiet: Norman, failing his first test as a soldier, hesitates to kill a child soldier. A split-second later, the tank in front of Fury has been destroyed.
Later, after another battle in which Norman barely fires his gun, the Allies capture a Nazi who pleads for his life and his family. Nobody cares. Wardaddy fetches Norman, tells him to kill the man.”This isn’t the right thing,” Norman cries. “We aren’t here to do the right thing, and neither are they,” Wardaddy says. “We’re here to kill them, and they’re here to kill us.” And he means it, too. He wrestles Norman into killing the man, literally forcing him to pull the trigger.
It’s after this that his fellow soldiers open up and speak of Wardaddy as if he were their real, biological father. They would never fight for anyone else, they say. It’s clear they feel strongly connected to Wardaddy, and expect that he feels the same toward them.
After they take a German town, there is a scene that does all but solidify Pitt’s Wardaddy as a literal daddy. It takes place in the apartment of two German women. While there, he instructs the women to make lunch for him. He tells Nelson to have sex with the youngest of the two women. And he fights for order at the table when Gordo, Bible, and Coon-Ass threaten to disrupt this peacetime lunch with drunken petulance. He manages to do all of it, even while chasing after Nazis and consoling Norman’s broken heart.
In Fury, all of Pitt’s filmic history as a hardened man comes to a head. He combines the odd affection of his Bass, the tough-love parenting of his Mr. O’Brien, and, most of all, the Nazi-hating of Lt. Aldo Raine, to create Wardaddy, a man who thinks of himself as a machine — a man who wants to be Lt. Aldo Raine — but who cannot help but still feel. Throughout the film, Pitt colors Wardaddy with all of these shades of vulnerability. When he doles out lessons, he slaps his soldiers hard with his gloved hand, as if they are dogs being disciplined. He chews on platitudes like, “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” and wields a gun as if he’s been holding them since he was a child. He violently loves his soldiers until they can’t help but love him back. And he sometimes gets sad about all of it.
It’s in in the Battle of Thermopylae-esque conclusion, where Wardaddy and co. defend an immobilized Fury against an approaching SS unit, that Ayers’ film becomes most like a War Movie, and Wardaddy — and Brad Pitt — becomes most like a War Hero. Armed with limited ammo and even more limited comrades, Wardaddy turns into a War Machine, spouting off insults in German as SS troops wade into the stream of his machine gun, grenades exploding left and right. The celebration of his character gets a bit intense at points, but it’s also well-earned: Brad Pitt went from playing Benjamin Button to becoming the top defender of the WWII-era USA, and, against all odds, he does it well.
Still, even with Pitt’s strong performance, Fury is not a perfect movie. Norman is too quickly broken, turned into a Nazi-killing machine. (And nicknamed “Machine.”) Spirituality plays too obvious a role as a binding force among the soldiers, though Shia LaBeouf’s performance as Bible is the best acting he’s done in years. And the concluding battle seems ripped from a completely different war film. But when Ayers’ movie is working, it works well. We believe Wardaddy is a good person, even if he wants to kill every German he sees. We sympathize with these soldiers who have been blunted by stress into animals. We sympathize with the Germans who have been forced into a war, their children enlisted as soldiers in a losing army. We sympathize, too, with Norman Ellison, a reluctant soldier who is, at one truly ironic moment, called a “hero.” Somehow, with all that happens in Fury, that — the soldier’s experience universally being summed up as “heroic” — is the true tragic message of it.