Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Movie Review: Fury

Directed by: David Ayer.
Written by: David Ayer.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Don 'Wardaddy' Collier), Shia LaBeouf (Boyd 'Bible' Swan), Logan Lerman (Norman Ellison), Michael Peña (Trini 'Gordo' Garcia), Jon Bernthal (Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis), Jim Parrack (Sergeant Binkowski), Brad Henke (Sergeant Davis), Kevin Vance (Sergeant Peterson), Xavier Samuel (Lieutenant Parker), Jason Isaacs (Captain Waggoner), Anamaria Marinca (Irma), Alicia von Rittberg (Emma).

As a writer and director, David Ayer has made a career out of exploring masculinity in its most base, violent form. He has had little use for women – wasting the considerable talents of Anna Kendrick and America Ferrara in End of Watch, and pretty much making Mirielle Enos and Olivia Williams play male characters in Sabotage. Therefore, it’s kind of surprising that it has taken him this long to make a war film – the one genre where it’s completely understandable if there are no female characters, especially if, like in Fury, the war in question is WWII. What is perhaps even more surprising than that is that the one scene in the movie that does have women in it, is far and away the best scene in the film – and perhaps the best scene in any movie Ayer has ever written or directed. The rest of the movie is typical, violent war is hell stuff – done with a lot of skill, and elevated by an excellent cast who make up a surrogate family more than just a platoon of soldiers (even if they, purposefully, remain more archetypes than three dimensional characters). But that one scene elevates the rest of the movie.

The film takes place in the spring of 1945 in Germany. Don “Wardaddy” Collier is a sergeant, and leader of a five man tank crew. They have been together for far longer than most tank crews – it was a dangerous job in the army, made more dangerous by the fact that the Germans had far superior tanks than the Americans did – and the group has just lost one of their own for the first time. As Wardaddy says, he started this war killing Nazis in Africa, and he’s now killed Nazis throughout Europe, and now he’s killing in Nazis in Germany. As Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds said “We’re in the Nazi killing business, and business is booming”. Wardaddy isn’t that far from Pitt’s character in Tarantino’s masterpiece in fact – except he’s lacking the humorous irony and sarcasm. Years of war have made him forget – at least temporarily – who he was before the war. Now he’s all business – and doesn’t much care what German he kills, as long as he’s German, Wardaddy will kill him. His crew mainly agree with him. To take the family metaphor to its logical extreme – Wardaddy is (obviously) the stern father – one who commands respect, and expects loyalty, and will give it in return. Bible (Shia LaBeouf) is the more caring, nurturing mother character – he is clearly second in command, but also a little more sympathetic to the others. There are actually more than a few moments of quiet tenderness between these two characters, in which it is certainly possible to read something close to sexual intimacy between these two. The two other crew members are Gordo (Michael Pena) – a Mexican American, and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), from somewhere in the deep South, who bicker and argue like brothers – and sometimes say incredibly mean, bigoted things to each other – but in a joking way. These men are a family – and they will die for each other.

So the arrival of Norman (Logan Lerman) is not entirely welcome by the men. He’s only been in the army for eight weeks, has no idea what to do on a tank, and thinks his orders are a mistake. But there is nothing anyone can do about them – so he’s stuck with the tank, and the crew is stuck with him. He may well get them all killed, since he clearly has no idea what the hell he’s doing. The crew resents him – and at first it appears like Wardaddy hates him – but gradually, he takes him under his wing, and the pair bond.

The war scenes in Fury are well handled. Ayer favors a chaotic look and feel to the action, in which there is a ton of blood spilled. Ever since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), many war films have attempted to up the ante in terms of pure, visceral violence and carnage in their war scenes – and while nothing in Fury approaches Ryan’s opening sequence, it is as well down as that film’s many imitators. Ayer doesn’t give us a grand, overreaching view of the overall strategy – but the point by point, ground level view of the war – where they take over one town at a time.

It is in the aftermath of one of those towns falling, that we get a brief interlude initially involving Wardaddy, Norman and two German women in an apartment building. The scene starts out somewhat menacing – we’ve just seen how far Wardaddy will go on his quest to eliminate the Nazis, including some things that are certainly not sanctioned – and the way he looks when he enters that apartment, with those women makes it look like anything is possible. But the scene then takes a rather gentle, surprising turn. Wardaddy is not looking for sex or violence – but a kind of return to normalcy – at least for a little while. And Norman, in his brief “relationship: with the younger of the two women is tender, and heartfelt – two teenagers in love really. It is the type of interlude that Francis Ford Coppola attempted in the French Plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now (1979) – which he was right in cutting for the initial cut of his masterpiece (my vote for best film of all time) – as he never quite found the right note to it. Ayer nails it here – and then the scene takes a dark turn when the other three men on the tank arrive, and turn the brief respite into one more hellish experience – a dysfunctional family dinner.

From there, the movie progresses as it must – with more violent war sequences, leading up to a point where the men of the tank have a choice between standing there ground in what may well be a meaningless suicide mission, or running for cover. Given what happened before, we know what they will choose before they do.
Fury is a fine movie – and that central sequence in the apartment is great. No, the film doesn’t add much new to the war film lexicon, but it does everything it sets out to do with skill and a visceral jolt. Ayer was made to make a war movie – and in Fury he has made his best film to date.

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