Movie Review: Fury (2014)
In “End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer, two cops shoot the shit inside their patrol car while trying to clean up the enemy territory of south central LA. It was one of the best movies of 2012.
In “Fury,” written and directed by David Ayer, five soldiers shoot the shit inside their tank, called “Fury,” while trying to clean up the enemy territory of Nazi Germany in April 1945. It’s one of the best movies of 2014.
It’s also as brutal as fuck. Bodies are run over by tanks, burned alive, blown to bits. We see a portion of a face inside a tank. We’re meat; we mix with mud. Prisoners are executed in cold blood. By us. We’re the good guys but we’re not good guys.
The movie begins with a man on a white horse, patrolling through the fog and the smoke of a recent battle, but he’s not a man on a white horse; he’s a German officer and he’s quickly killed by Sgt. “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), the leader of the Fury squad. It’s Ayer putting us on notice. No men on white horses here, kids. No John Waynes.
You know the leap in realism between John Wayne war movies and, say, HBO’s “Band of Brothers”? “Fury” almost feels like that leap again. It makes you long for the moral clarity of “Band of Brothers.”
You or him: Pick
Someday, maybe next year, dissertations will be written about the scene in the German apartment. There’s so much going on there. So many subtle and blunt things. So many strong, mixed emotions. Theirs and ours.
It’s April 1945, and the Fury tank squad reconnects with the U.S. Army in Germany. “Where’s the rest of 3rd platoon?” Sgt. Collier is asked by his new commander. “We’re it,” Collier says. A moment later, he kneels beside a tank, out of sight, and exhales. It’s his real face. We won’t see it much.
In that last battle, Collier lost one of his tank drivers, and when the fresh-faced replacement, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), shows up, we get this exchange:
Ellison: I’m your new assistant tank driver.
Sgt. Collier [after a once-over]: No, you are not.
He isn’t; he’s a clerk. He can type 60 words a minute. He’s never even seen the inside of a tank. But you know the Army: FUBAR. So now he’s an assistant tank driver.
He’s also our eyes and ears for the movie. He’s our introduction to the “Fury” team. They can’t be our eyes and ears, since they’ve seen too much and done too much. They all have thousand-yard stares, particularly Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf, in an incredible performance), who quotes scripture when necessary; who calls upon God’s grace and doesn’t expect it. The others are Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Ayer regular Michael Pena), who’s a sly jokester, and Grady “Coon Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), who’s a more loutish jokester. They’re all this close to losing it.
They’ve certainly lost humanity, and that’s what worries Collier about Norman; he has too much of it. He’s a danger to himself and to them. During his first patrol, his inaction causes the death of their commanding officer, who is burned alive in front of all of them. “That’s your fault, that’s your fucking fault!” Collier yells, hitting the kid about the head. He tells him how he made a promise to himself to keep the men alive. “You are getting in the way of that!” he shouts. Then we get a great, powerful scene. It’s one of the best scenes of the year and the second-best of this movie.
On the outskirts of some woods between German towns, an enemy soldier, looking decidedly un-Teutonic, looking vaguely Jewish, begs for his life. He shows a picture of his family but gets no mercy. Laughter instead. Collier orders Norman to kill him in cold blood, but Norman refuses. Collier hits him, taunts him, bullies him. He threatens his life. He starts out saying that it’s Norman’s job to kill the German just as it’s the German’s job to kill Ellison; then it devolves. “He kills you or you kill him,” he says, brandishing the revolver: “You or him: Pick!” Norman, surprisingly, picks himself. “Kill me!” he shouts. That, Collier knows, won’t help. So Collier makes the kid shoot him. He gets him in a headlock, forces the revolver into his hand, and, as Norman squirms and cries out in horror, raises his arm and pulls the trigger. You can watch the scene here.
Is this one of the more immoral acts we’ve seen an American hero perform in a Hollywood movie? Not just killing an unarmed man but forcing an innocent to do it? Yet it’s completely logical. It’s in the line when Collier first smothers Norman in an almost paternal headlock: “You here to get me killed? I need you to perform.”
If there are moral qualms in the above scene, an indication of a “psychically toxic kind of warfare,” as Ayer himself has said, they only deepen in the scene in the German apartment.
If you don’t take her into that bedroom, I will
You hear April 1945 and you think, “Well, war’s almost over. That’s nice.” But Hitler called for all-out war; he had women and children fighting in the end. The Germans who don’t fight? The S.S. strings them up with notes of warning around their necks. The great reveal in “Full Metal Jacket”—kids as soldiers—is a mere aside here.
In one town square, during mop-up, Collier sees a woman look out from her third-floor window and takes Norman to check it out. Or check her out? He suspects she’s hiding someone, as she is, but it’s another, younger relative. A girl Norman’s age. So they stay. What does Collier have in mind, initially? He asks the woman, Irma (Anamaria Marinca of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”), for hot water. The girl, Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), is young and pretty and wears a summer dress—it’s as if they didn’t know enemy soldiers were coming—and it makes you wonder, as Ayer surely wants us to wonder: Is Brad Pitt going to rape that girl? Another thought: Does Norman alter the trajectory of events by sitting down at the piano and playing classical music? Emma walks over to him, smiles, sings along. She’s got a nice voice. Things are nice for a second. Then Collier tells Norman to take the girl into the bedroom before he does.
Is Norman (not to mention Collier) saved by having the girl take Norman’s hand rather than vice-versa? Or does that make it worse somehow? Meanwhile, Collier uses the hot water to wash up and shave, to become presentable again, and he gives the woman eggs to cook. What’s his gameplan? Does he have one? Does he just want to feel human for a few minutes? Sit down at the table to eggs and polite conversation with pretty women? Does he gravitate toward Norman not only to teach him to be savage but to be near his humanity? Is he trying to recover his own that way?
Whatever Collier is trying to build in the German apartment crumbles when the rest of his men burst in, loud and loutish. Where there was a gentleness in Norman’s interest in Emma, there is none from the others. Where Norman played classical music on the piano, “Coon Ass” plops his arms and ass on the keys. Collier doesn’t like it, Norman doesn’t like it, we don’t like it. It feels like a betrayal—like these men burst in and smashed something carefully and delicately built up. But the real betrayal, you can argue, is the thing carefully and delicately built up. You see it in the eyes of the men around the table, particularly from Boyd. That Collier would do this without them. That he would leave them behind? You see Collier attempting to be both head of the table and tank commander, and the two don’t mesh. The father at the head of the table isn’t made for war. That’s another guy.
Question: Is this scene so good that the rest of the movie feels ... anticlimactic? Simplistic?
As soon as they leave the apartment building, for example, the town gets shelled (by us?), and when the men look up the building they just left is rubble. Collier has to pull Norman away from Emma’s corpse. That felt unnecessary. On the plus side, it underlines Collier’s comment to Irma when the two kids went into the bedroom: “They’re young; and they’re alive.”
Four U.S. tanks continue on, but they quickly encounter a German Tiger tank, which was apparently superior to the ones we produced, and at the end of the battle, again, only our men are alive. Are they doomed to be alone? As they were at the beginning of the movie? Can no one keep up? Then they run over a mine and the tank loses its tracks. And over the hill come 300 Germans: S.S., fighting to the bitter end.
That bugged me when I first saw the trailer to “Fury.” How do you make American troops in Germany in April 1945 the underdogs? Well, you do this. You make it five against 300.
Why do they stay with their tank? Collier says he’s going to stay to fight, and Norman, not knowing any better, is the first to join him. So the others do, too. But they must know it’s a suicide mission. Collier must know. Why does he do it? Is it the Capt. Kirk/ Enterprise thing? He can’t leave his ship? Is it stubbornness? Pride? Did the scene in the German apartment make him realize that he wasn’t fit for civilization anymore, so why not end it here?
In the end, only Norman is alive. He’s called a hero but he knows he’s not. He knows he didn’t do what Collier told him to do (play dead; don’t surrender); he knows he’s only alive because he receives from one German soldier what the German soldier in the woods didn’t receive from us: mercy. But Ayer lets the word hang there in the air. Hero. It recalls the last line of “Band of Brothers.” But the word is complicated by everything we’ve already seen.
“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” Collier tells Norman at one point. Supposedly it was an ad-lib by Brad Pitt. To be honest, I didn’t like the line. I thought it was too obvious. I liked an earlier line of Collier’s, after Norman kills some Germans: “Wasn’t nothing, right?” Good use of the double negative.
“Fury” is a gut shot. You almost wonder if we would have fewer wars if every war movie looked like “Fury.”