A relentless depiction of one WWII tank crew’s grim passage through the ravaged German countryside, writer-director David Ayer’s Fury casts itself as an authentic corrective to classic tales of derring-do, exposing all the sordid beastliness buried beneath illusions of patriotic valor. But while the miserable account of war given here is likely more realistic than that of less gruesome portrayals, it’s still operating off the same basic fantasy of combat as a messy proving ground for men poised on the fringes of chaos, doing the dirty work necessary to keep civilization safe from harm. Cast in a muddy palette of grays, browns, and greens, the film makes a dour show of this two-sided approach, claiming disgust at the horrors of war while relishing their gory shock value and the opportunities for down-and-dirty glory they facilitate.
Fury opens in a blackened field full of steaming wreckage, a horse and rider navigating the ruined landscape. Leaping nimbly from a downed tank, squad commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) unseats the rider and brutally dispatches him with a few knife strikes to the skull, sending the milk-white steed, and any lingering notions of wholesome heroism, off into the distance. The rest of the film concerns a series of rear guard movements as the five-man crew and their beat-up M4 Sherman, accompanied by green new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), go about rescuing soldiers, taking towns, and squaring off against daunting German Tiger tanks. A trembling cliché of unpreparedness, Norman is fresh from the typing pool, and in no way prepared for the amoral realities of battle, in which prisoners are executed and dead men stripped of their belongings. Yet it’s not long before the raw recruit has become the protégé of his hardened commander, who educates him in the art of maintaining some semblance of civility and order in the face of violent pandemonium.
A committed chronicler of macho ambivalence, Ayer probably isn’t the best person to be plumbing America’s wartime psyche, yet he seems persistently intent on finding brute poetry in peacekeeping conflict, usually to the detriment of his stories. Whether writing cult classics like Training Day or tawdry, maudlin junk like End of Watch, his preferred mode is really pulp, with ludicrous events and wild exploits balanced out by a thin veneer of realism. The better of his films accept that pulp status, using the mixture of convincing insider lingo and morally compromised characters to shape fantasy worlds with a sharp similarity to our own. The lesser ones opt for bad behavior softened by sentimentality, sanctifying the commitment of rough-hewn sentinel heroes and depicting female and minority characters as faceless others, background figures to be either protected or defeated by charmingly flawed male protagonists.
That othering isn’t a big issue in Fury, which finds its enemy in waves of anonymous Nazis—the ultimate all-purpose featureless bad guy—with particular focus on the monsters of the SS, who hang children and force adolescent girls to fight their battles. Although the craven evil of the Nazis is self-evident, the bad behavior attributed to the American GIs, ostensibly to deepen and complicate their characterization, puts them nearly on par with their adversaries, with the biggest separating caveat that they’re fighting for the “good guys.” This is fine baseline material for a morally complex view of conflict; it certainly worked well in Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, a similarly caustic drama with a memorable tank scene, which imagined war as an endlessly cycling nightmare. Fury, however, is less interested in conveying the actual outlines of this hell than crafting its own set of myths, ones tailored to a generation which fully grasps the unruly disorder of war, and is thus too jaded to naïvely enjoy stories which openly celebrate conflict.
This sets the stage for movies like this one, which decry the monstrousness of combat while accepting it as a given, never questioning its function as a necessary byproduct of human nature. Too solemn and unimaginative to be interesting, Fury is itself a lumbering tank of a movie, chunky, loud, and clumsy, mulching down men into meat as proof of its dramatic seriousness and gloomy worldview. This is less a record of battlefield verisimilitude than an inflated cartoon of masculinity in action, and its apparent anti-war message is complicated by its blind valorization of warriors, imagined as tortured souls simply doing their jobs. Smearing muck on old-fashioned notions of quiet courage, it pretends to examine war, but then shrugs noncommittally at its complexities, relying on faceless villains and tired clichés while ignoring the actual mechanics of how such conflicts start and continue—the sort of blunt attitude toward violence which allows the same stupid cycles of aggression to perpetuate.