LONDON—You want to know how awful, futile, and dehumanizing war is? Well, it’s bad enough to make Brad Pitt stab somebody right through the eyeball.
In two and a quarter long, brutal hours of Fury, the examples don’t stop there. Acts of violence include death by hanging, rifle butt, boot heel, tank tracks and fireball. After about 90 minutes of murderous World War II chaos, Pitt’s gnarled platoon leader, Wardaddy, spits out the words: “It will end soon, but before it does; a lot more people gotta die.”
He’s as good as his word. As Wardaddy’s tank crew plunges deeper into enemy territory, the kill count continues to accelerate until we reach the movie’s final haunting shot, which shows a field of bodies splayed out as far as the eye can see.
If this was a video game, and it feels close at times, it would be the shoot-‘em up to end all shoot-‘em ups. Fury is magnificent in some ways but the brutality feels very real, this is not the stylized violence that made Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds so much fun. Anyone who thinks this movie is good fun should go on some kind of NSA watch list.
Director David Ayer would like to make a point and there’s no danger of it being too subtle for the audience. As the Allied forces sweep into Germany in the final months of World War II, it is the American soldiers who are guilty of the most brutal acts of summary execution, throat-slitting, and rape. It is the Germans who ride on white horses and surprise us with acts of kindness. That’s not to say the Nazis are being excused—more that the Americans are being accused.
“The conflict itself truly was this sort of battle between good and evil,” said Ayer, speaking after a screening at the London Film Festival. “People often project the moral clarity of the conflict itself into the daily lives of the soldiers, but that wasn’t the case. For the troops on the ground or in the tank turrets it was incredibly morally murky just like any conflict.”
It’s an interesting premise; to take the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam movie canon and transplant it into the heart of Nazi Germany. It might have made a great movie but Ayer’s storytelling is so heavy-handed it becomes irritating. The violence was turned up to 11, but the message could still have been handled with more subtlety. We see the brain-numbing, soul-destroying impact of war in fast forward as a young recruit joins Wardaddy’s tank team which has been together for much of the war.
In a few short, predictable scenes, Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) goes from ingénue who refuses to shoot a captured German to a machine gun-toting killer bellowing: “Fucking Nazis! Fuck you!” as he mows down what looks like hundreds of victims. “The warrior is in all of us,” said Ayer.
Pitt and Shia LaBeouf make excellent warriors. LaBeouf genuinely immersed himself in the role, even going so far as to have a tooth removed, but Pitt is the stand out performer as the leader struggling to come to terms with the terrifying, sometimes despicable, acts he must command his men to commit.
“This is not a film about sides and who’s winning, what this is, for me, was a film about that cumulative psychic trauma, that dent in the psyche that every soldier carries to some extent and endures and is then meant to go home with,” said Pitt in London.
"War is hell. Talking to the vets and even the vets that are recently home, one guy said ‘Listen, war is ludicrous. If you look at it, it is ludicrous, so you don't.’ It is an amazing fact of human nature that one year you'll be chopping each other up, the next year you'll be sharing a pint."
If Pitt’s military source speaks the truth, Ayer certainly got one thing right: Fury is undoubtedly ludicrous.