War is ugly, but not inhuman. Given our shared, horrifically violent history as a species, I would say that the adjective “inhuman” may be one of the most naively optimistic words ever created. It suggests that cruelty and barbarism are something outside of human nature; an ironic notion considering that human beings are the only creatures on Earth capable of them. In a manner, this is the main topic of discussion in Fury, writer/director David Ayer’s new film.
After the loss of their assistant driver, the veteran crew of the titular tank, Fury, is assigned a replacement in the form of Norman, played by Logan Lerman. Much like the Ayer-scripted film Training Day, the events of Fury take place within a very short amount of time, following a recruit through their initial experiences on a new assignment. Unlike the rest of the crew, Lerman’s Norman has never seen combat. He’s a typist reassigned to a combat position due to what seems to be a clerical error. Faced with no other choice, Norman is forced to join the crew of the Fury and is put through a gauntlet of challenges that show him both the horrors of war and how it affects people, as well as the brotherhood created therein.
Lerman is faced with perhaps the most challenging role in the film; his Norman experiences a broad variety of emotions as he’s taken from naïve noncombat to traumatized killer within the span of the film. Lerman, who first drew serious attention for his role as Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, has steadily been building a very strong filmography over the last few years, having held his ground opposite the likes of Christian Bale, Russell Crowe (on two occasions), and now Brad Pitt. Though I might harbor a completely misplaced professional jealousy of Lerman’s accomplishments given that he is a year younger than me (*shakes fist angrily at sky*), the man is a truly talented actor and I’m very excited to see where he goes from here.
Norman’s commanding officer is Don “Wardaddy” Collier, played by Brad Pitt. Quietly revered by his fellow soldiers and crew, Collier is a no nonsense sergeant who gets things done. Though close with his crewmembers, there exists an inherent distance between them; he is their leader, and they must respect the awful power given to him through that distinction. Pitt imbues Collier with the same wordless depth that made his performance in Tree of Life so striking; Collier is a haunted man, scarred from his experiences, but not in front of his crew. We only see the profundity of Collier’s heartache a few times in the film, but it is something to behold, captured within quiet moments and lingering stares. As the film progresses and the layers of Collier are revealed, Pitt truly shines, continuing to prove that he is one of the best actors around.
The same can be said for Shia LaBeouf, who plays Boyd “Bible” Swan, the tank’s gunner. LaBeouf has had a rough few years in the media, but I have never doubted his talent as an actor and Fury only reinforces my feelings. Out of all of his crewmembers, Collier seems to be closest with Bible. Their interactions in the film manage to create a relationship that feels authentic, containing all the subtlety of real conversations between two men that have spent years fighting together; these conversations manage to reflect the difference in their rank while also exhibiting the mutual respect and brotherly love they share for one another without outright stating these feeling in dialogue, which is an accomplishment. As the stakes become more dire, LaBeouf perfectly captures Bible’s fear and more importantly, his willingness to overcome that fear for his brothers in arms.
Michael Peña and Joe Bernthal round out the cast as Trini “Gordo” Garcia, the tank’s driver, and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, the tank’s loader. Peña is predictably great as Gordo, bringing his usual enthusiasm and likeability to the role, despite a large dose of cynicism and a small bit of sleaze. Gordo, like the rest of the crew, seems like a good man who has been dirtied to the core by his deeds and experiences. Meanwhile, Bernthal, known best for his role as Shane on The Walking Dead proves to be an actor of great subtlety, capable of layering what could otherwise have been a shallow character. Coon-Ass begins the film seeming like a dumb, violent hick, but Bernthal deftly peels back the edges of his character as the end looms, revealing glimpses of the man within.
As one can see from the character descriptions above, the film largely deals with the emotional price of war and how prolonged exposure to it can change a person. Early on, Bible chides Norman, saying that he doesn’t know what they’ve been through, and that it is only a matter of time until he sees what war can make a man do to another man. Unlike other films, it would seem that the more you learn about these men, the less you would like them. Through their experiences, they have been reduced to their barest, ugliest parts; it is only their dedication to one another that remains spotless. In a manner, this is the reason for their initial rejection of Norman; they abhor his purity, his goodness, knowing that they once possessed the same and now it is lost to them. There is a lot going on in Fury besides the dialogue and I, for one, appreciated its candor in dealing with the monstrous actions that are taken in times of war, regardless of one’s allegiance.
Building on that, much has been said about the violence in this film. It is grisly, terrible stuff. People explode, limbs are lost, bodies burst under tank treads, etc. Some have said that the violence depicted within this film is overtly explicit, undermining the film’s attempt to comment on the horrors of war by delivering an exploitative, bloody, blockbuster-like finale. With those detractors, I disagree. The bloody action within this film is just as much of a commentary on war as the dialogue and actions of the characters that take place between scenes of combat. To depict anything less than the fullest horrors of these life and death situations would strike me as inauthentic and disrespectful to those that experienced them. A sanitized version of these events would ring false. War is a hellish, appalling experience and if a film based on real events delivers anything less than that, it strikes me as cheap.
That being said, from a technical standpoint, this movie is beautiful. The cinematography by Roman Vasyanov is striking. Paired with Ayer’s direction, Fury is an extremely visceral experience; the scenes of combat are kinetic and exciting while the quiet moments brim with emotion. The action scenes within the tank especially evoke a sense of harried claustrophobia that only adds to the film’s nearly relentless tension. The music by Steven Price is inspired, mixing choral arrangements with synthesized tones, creating something ominous and decidedly militaristic. The sound design is also superb in this film. The machine gun fire is loud. Tank shells zip and whine, sometimes clanging off tank armor as they ricochet into the sky, or making muted thumps as the smack into the soil. Everything made me want to duck in my seat and I don’t know if any other film this year has affected me so tangibly through sound alone.
Fury is simply one of the best films I have seen this year. I know that I seem to say that a lot, but I only write about things that I enjoy, so bear with me. It is a serious film about a serious subject that treats it in a mature way without getting lost in its violence; rather its violence only serves to reinforce the themes explored within, the questions of what does war do to a person, and what does a person have to be to take part in one. I highly recommend it.