Ayer’s previous films, from his screenplay for cop thriller Training Day to his minor directorial efforts like End of Watch and Sabotage, feature ensembles of tough professionals, but the men of Fury are his best, most fully realized group. They’re men beaten down by war. They’re depressed, mournful, battle-hardened, and shell-shocked. Their gruff, scarred, paternal leader (Brad Pitt) bites off his words, reminiscing about starting out killing Germans in Africa, then France. Now they’re moving towards Berlin, taking one town at a time. A typical demographic cross-section WWII squad, there’s a devout Christian (Shia LaBeouf), a Latino (Michael Peña), and an itchy trigger finger (Jon Bernthal). But they transcend their types by not making a big deal about them. They blend as a team, brotherly, on-edge, and ready to kill.
It’s fine ensemble work, presenting a group of men who know one another from spending time in close quarters building relationships forged in battle. They’re trapped in a tank, taking and returning enemy fire for brief moments, but mostly sitting, anxious, ready for anything for long stretches of time. Camaraderie is as tangible as their pain. The film opens on a quiet battlefield littered with carnage. The tank is broken. One of their gunners is dead. Slowly the tank roars to life, moving across the smoking ruins of so many men and machines. The battle was won, but their friend was lost. Back at camp, they’re assigned a new team member, a fresh-faced recent recruit pulled out of the typing pool (Logan Lerman). They don’t quite know what to do with him. He’s inexperienced, and has clear distaste for violence.
The new kid is instantly sympathetic, and not just because the frightened, bookish, idealistic young solider is always the character I’m most certain I would be in these types of movies. He’s hesitant to shoot at suspected threats. He is intimidated by the tough guys around him. Yes, they’re worn out, violent, grey, and grimy, but they also have a mumbly, closed-off rapport that seems difficult for a newcomer to penetrate. They have their routines, their procedures, their shorthand. Lerman’s character arc is familiar, but compelling. The movie follows his discovery of war and his new brothers in arms as their tank moves to another skirmish, then into a small German town for some urban warfare, then on to another mission. All the while, they seem so worn out, exhausted by the war’s violent ending. They don’t know the war’s final conclusion is around the corner, but the sense of finality is pervasive.
Free of most typical heroics associated with World War II features, Ayer creates a movie rooted firmly in the tangible dirtiness of it all. It’s gory, bullets ripping flesh and explosions sending torn fragments of body and cloth through the air. The men are constantly covered in mud and grime, dried blood and sweat. They have cuts and scrapes, haunted looks in their eyes, and weights on their shoulders. The immediacy of the detail and sense of place is accentuated by Roman Vasyanov’s striking, often hauntingly gorgeous cinematography that alternates tight close-ups inside the tank with wide shots of foggy forests and fields. And the guys look like they’ve been cooped up for years, smelly, claustrophobic, and tense. One brief moment allows the group a dinner table, around which we see reflected in their behaviors who among them retains kindness, and who is lost in the brutality of war.
It’s undoubtedly a cynical movie, in which death comes unpredictably, where people lay down their lives and become just another corpse to be piled up, dumped off, or left to rot. Of course our team navigates the conflict in typical war film ways, but the sense of loss is palpable throughout. Even as the battle sequences are shot and edited in steady, propulsive action filmmaking, they’re as mournful and scary as they are exciting. The climax, especially, is gripping and thrilling, but is also the ultimate expression of the film’s obvious war-is-hell thesis. It’s a last stand at night, the only light from a raging fire, as smoke mingles with gunfire and blood splatter. It’s hellish, and the closest Ayer comes to the brutal poetry of a nihilistic Hemingway or grindhouse gravitas. Sorrow and fear are welcome notes in this masculine genre, creating a film that’s both hard-edged and ambivalent, painful either way.