The most memorable character in Fury is Don Collier, or “Wardaddy,” the weathered commander of a tank – the eponymous Fury – in the final days of World War II. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt, exceptional in a role that nevertheless falls short of his best work) is a man of contradictions: he emanates grim, detached pragmatism in one scene and, hiding himself from his crew members, weeps in the next. He mocks a religious crewmember for quoting the Bible, and then, when this crewmember can’t remember the reference, supplies it (“Book of Isaiah, chapter six”). He riddles enemy soldiers with machine gun fire and even takes his fists to his own men, but is moved to tears when he thinks of killing a wounded horse. He sits down to enjoy a meal with German civilians and then slams a knife into the table. Even his moniker, Wardaddy, is a contradiction of sorts, highlighting the tension between his warmer paternal instincts and his warlike brutality.
All this is emblematic of the film as a whole. In the hands of director David Ayer, Fury tries to be, by turns, a patriotic war epic in the vein of Saving Private Ryan (celebrating the camaraderie of American soldiers), a critical portrait of war akin to Apocalypse Now (exposing the way it can strip away the humanity of its participants) and an idealized fantasy in the vein of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. To Ayer’s credit, he makes a great effort to mold these disparate approaches into a coherent whole.
Fury, make no mistake, is a fantasy. Just as westerns rarely try to authentically reconstruct the world of the American frontier, Fury is more concerned with evoking an idealized, larger-than-life world than attaining any sort of historical accuracy (note the Star Wars-esque green and red gunfire). With this approach comes a mythic sort of simplicity: the Americans are heroes, the Nazis villains, marching to the tune of ominous chanting and vocalizing that wouldn’t be out of place in Lord of the Rings. Yet Ayer doesn’t stop here: he also wants to portray the Americans as ambiguous, conflicted individuals whose humanity is slowly being drained away, who are liable to kill prisoners of war and rape civilians in-between battles. The problem is that, although Ayer tries to color in his black and white drawing with shades of grey, going to great lengths to establish the potential for barbarity within his American protagonists, in the end, they revert back into noble, idealized heroes who share drinks and declare that the army is “the best job they ever had” before dying valiantly for their country. While exposing the horrors of war, the director loves it too much.
Notwithstanding this crucial flaw, Fury has its merits. The cinematography is pleasing to the eye, with a stylized color palette befitting Ayer’s fictionalized world. Steven Price’s score is fittingly bombastic, albeit overbearing at times (which is in keeping with the film’s general lack of subtlety). Most importantly, Ayer’s direction breathes visceral life into the proceedings. The film is paced well: it takes its time, giving its characters time to breathe – the cast shines brightest when they’re clashing in the claustrophobic confines of Fury – and even when the forward movement of the narrative stops for a lengthy interlude in a war-torn town, it’s never anything less than engaging. Yet for all its merits, Fury can never overcome the tonal confusion at its very core. It’s a well-crafted and engaging mess, with admirable ambitions and some truly intriguing ideas at play, but it’s a mess nonetheless.
Fury is unique among war films in its focus on tanks and tank warfare. In a crucial scene, Wardaddy describes Fury as his home, and the tank is omnipresent in the film. It becomes a method of transportation, a symbol of security, a sort of claustrophobic arena in which personalities clash violently, and ultimately, a fortress to be defended. The film’s one truly outstanding set piece makes the most of the inherently clumsy and slow-moving nature of tank warfare, imbuing the proceedings with tension and claustrophobia as Fury goes up against a stronger, faster German tank and, like the underdog in a sports film’s climactic boxing match, narrowly prevails. The last time a tank was used this well in an action scene was when Harrison Ford was trying to rescue Sean Connery from it in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This high point only serves to make the third act more disappointing, as the film moves inexorably towards a thoroughly unremarkable and conventional climax.
Fury’s crew is a motley bunch, of the sort we’re accustomed to seeing in war films. The protagonist is Norman Ellison, a young and inexperienced typist who, in the film’s early scenes, becomes the newest member of the crew. Norman (“norm man”) is the everyman, the audience’s introduction into this world, an innocent who is slowly (or, in a few of the script’s messier portions, rather abruptly) turned into a soldier. The character is functional, but we’ve seen his arc a hundred times before, and Logan Lerman plays him accordingly, hitting each beat effectively, never outstandingly. The other characters are similarly archetypal. Michael Peña is the grumpy one who occasionally drinks too much. Jon Bernthal is the abrasive and savage one, who picks on our unseasoned hero and eventually has a change of heart towards him. Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd Swan is nicknamed “Bible.” You can guess which archetype he fills. All this need not be pejorative. After all, tropes exist because they work, and while these characters never take on unique lives beyond those of their respective archetypes, they’re brought to life persuasively enough.
In Greek mythology, the Furies were ancient deities who embodied the never-ending cycle of blood vengeance. Fury the tank, then, is aptly named. It’s a symbol of the cycle that Norman is forced into, killing until it is his turn to be killed. Ayer draws on mythic and religious imagery for his vision, painting the war as a sort of purgatory – from early images of a soldier on horseback riding through the fog shrouding a field of corpses, to an omnipresent juxtaposition of crosses and hellish fires – and this is the realm into which Norman is thrust. In his first scene, when Norman identifies himself as an Episcopalian, the crewmembers of Fury pointedly ask, “Are you saved?” It’s a question he’s unable to answer – a question that lingers unresolved over the rest of the film until, finally, the cycle is broken by another innocent’s act of mercy. Norman is saved. When mercy is shown, Fury dies.