The following contains spoilers for Fury. You have been warned.
If the world didn’t know David Ayer as anything but the writer of Training Day until the breakout success of End of Watch, Fury might be the film that propels him into the conversation of upper tier active filmmakers. It’s his first feature with a relatively big budget (coming in at a reported $68 million, which is still pretty low considering the cast and effects that went into the movie), and by our estimation, Ayer got his money’s worth. If you’re looking for something more non-spoilery, check out our review. Otherwise, dig in with Erik, Eduardo, and myself into just what made Fury a movie worth our time.
Eduardo: I guess, overall, the first thing I’d say is that I liked the movie. A lot of the scenes had moments that you could identify from other war films before, but even with that, it was packaged in a way where I still felt it was a pretty good effort by Ayer and the cast. And there’s something about Ayer as a director and writer, the way he’s able to show a brotherhood between people, whether it be servicemen or police officers, he does really well.
Tim: So there are a couple things there, but let’s start with the first half of that. This is a movie that, inescapably, is going to look similar to some other war movies that have come before it. I singled out Saving Private Ryan in my review, and I still think that’s both the best and the most obvious analogue. But let’s get into some of those moments, because to me this movie has a very interesting structural balance. It’s so much about the breadth of the war, and what war can do to people in a broad sense, but it’s anchored in very embodied moments, like when Norman has to clean the face of the old gunner out of the tank, or when he is forced to shoot the captured Nazi. (Among so many others).
Erik: If we’re making comparisons, the WWII film this reminded me of most was Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One. Both open with a scene of an American knifing a German – in Fury, Brad Pitt, in Big Red One, Lee Marvin. Both involve a young naive soldier entering a squad and coming of age/becoming traumatized through his experiences (Fury, Logan Lerman; Big Red One, Mark Hamill). And both have a minimal plot, instead focusing on the intricacies of the unit, their personalities, and what they go through together.
Tim: Eduardo, I have to believe that the coming of age thing that Erik just mentioned ties right into your sense of “identify[ing moments] from other war films.”
Eduardo: Yes, actually, the idealism of the new recruit (Norman) is something that I immediately identified from Saving Private Ryan with Jeremy Davies’ character in the film. He has a similar arc as Lerman does in Fury. But the interesting thing is, where Davies belief in humanity works against him in the end of Ryan (when he’s forced to kill the German whom he earlier convinced Hanks to set free) I feel that Norman’s affirmation in humanity is somewhat rewarded in Fury. The specific scene I’m thinking of being when he’s hiding under the tank, and the young German spots him. That moment is almost a rebuttal to what happens with Davies’ character in Ryan. And although the characters were similar overall, it was somewhat refreshing because you don’t see that in many war films. This idea that, yeah…war is ugly, but people are still capable of doing compassionate things even in the midst of it.
Erik: Norman, I thought, was interesting, because you do see characters in war films who have some kind of philosophy regarding killing (Hamill has it in Big Red One), but Norman outright refuses to kill at first – understandable considering he wasn’t supposed to be fighting in the first place. Usually that kind of character (the one who kills, but has some kind of morality – usually one involving patriotism – about it) learns a lesson about taking another’s life. Norman doesn’t just learn though, he is completely broken down and built back up into something different.
Tim: Everything you two just hit on is where I’m most of two minds with this movie. On the one hand, I love that in a movie that is so overbearingly about the hate that war inspires, there’s also time devoted to the hope of peace and love overcoming that hate, that the hate is not permanent or irrevocable. You see that in the midpoint scene with the two German women as well. On the other hand, I don’t believe for one moment that an SS officer who just watched his squad decimated by this one tank crew lets Norman go. That was the single worst part of the movie to me.
Erik: You know, I was kind of disappointed by the ending myself. To me it felt like they were building up to killing off every single one of the characters, and I think they were doing it so well, I was actually quite comfortable with the idea – despite the fact that I’d come to like them. So when Norman survived it was as equivalent of, in any other movie abruptly killing a character for no apparent reason.
Tim: The weird thing is, I really liked the payoff with Norman coming out so shell shocked and utterly broken down mentally, but I think the movie would have ended better as a tragedy, that same shot pulling back into the air to showing the ruined tank and the bodies strewn all about the field.
Eduardo: I guess I stand alone in Norman’s payoff, but I understand the issue of believability with the German soldier; absolutely. But it felt like a necessary sacrifice for, again, this theme of humanity even in chaos.
Tim: See, and I think I agree with that, too. How’s that for some self-contradiction?
Eduardo: On another note, the scene with the two German girls that you mentioned was something that I felt was almost pitch-perfect…almost. We mentioned the “worst part of the movie,” and to me, it was putting forth this forced love interest in what was otherwise an absolutely perfect scene. When Norman and the girl go into the room together, I felt it was a very heavy-handed scene, and their relationship from that point on towards each other was beyond my idea of believable. I felt they had perfectly captured a connection in the piano scene, and then later to show her death, and Norman mourning for her would have been just as effective because Ayer had established his morality before, and even without the bed scene, they still shared intimate moments at the piano and eating dinner together. That moment really bothered me, though.
Erik: I didn’t think there was any “love” involved. I thought it was just young people porking and getting caught up in the euphoria post-coitus. In fact, I thought the interruption by the other squad members represented the futility of trying to achieve love or normalcy during wartime, and reinforced the completely dark ending I was expecting. But hey, maybe I just like nihilism a little too much.
Tim: I guess I sort of split the difference between the two of you. I thought the two of them getting pushed into the bedroom worked fine, and I really liked the more innocent moments leading up to when they kiss. My problem with the scene wasn’t so much that they did have sex, but that it might have been even stronger without sex. Horny 20-year-olds will be horny 20-year-olds, but I guess I don’t believe Norman as a character was quite ready to hop in bed with the first fraulein he came across. I liked their connection on a more human level, and as a bit of a side note, I kind of laughed when Norman’s being dragged off by his squad and he insists he’ll write to Emma (the girl). That was pretty cheesy. On the whole, I really like what the scene was doing, though.
Erik: I thought the whole point was that Norman wasn’t ready for sex, wasn’t ready for anything that happened to him, which is why it shouldn’t have been happening to him. But again….war.
Tim: I’ll definitely buy that intention, I just think the movie didn’t quite pull it off – though by a pretty slim margin.
Eduardo: Right. As I said, the scene was close to perfect for me. Everything else was working. And I did appreciate the intrusion of war crashing into their domesticity, when they’re trying to have a meal at the dinner table, almost fantastically playing house with the two German women. That was all very well done.
Tim: To go in the absolute opposite direction, I don’t think we can talk about this movie without taking some time to talk about A) the violence, and B) the technology used to perpatrate that violence, especially the tanks. One scene that had them both, and was more compelling than it had any right to be purely from the action, was the tank battle between the three Shermans and the German Tiger.
Erik: For me – and this is where my crazy, immature mind goes – it was like a battle out of a giant monster movie (funny considering the recent Godzilla movie’s monster fights were so lackluster). Anyway, the tanks had – for lack of a better word – personality. When the German Tiger came charging out onto the battlefield it could have roared and I wouldn’t have minded.
Eduardo: If we’re mentioning the convergence of violence with the technology used for it, I can’t go any further without talking about that very brief, almost throwaway moment when the Sherman tanks are driving over a corpse that has basically been mushed into pulp in the mud. Really, it was quite striking and so brief. About five seconds, but just seeing the uniform and the very few remains of a person mixed in with all the muck and mush.
Tim: Absolutely, I’m glad you brought that moment up. Watching it in the theater, I remember thinking to myself that in many other movies that would have seemed gratuitous and cheap, but in this movie, it was incredibly poignant. And that speaks to the depiction as a whole. The violence in this film is very gory, but it earns it in my opinion because it’s actually saying something. When a tank round decapitates a man, there’s significance. Like, holy shit, did you really need to invent a tank to do that to a person? Or when a machine gun amputates a leg, it’s unthinkable and yet so present and visceral and believable and real.
Erik: One of the most striking violent images to me wasn’t even an act of violence itself. It’s in the beginning when Norman is told to clean up the inside of the tank and he sees part of the face of his predecessor splattered across the floor. Normally I’d expect that out of a gory horror film, and it would be there purely for shock value. Here, yes it is shocking, but it’s also pretty sad considering how badly the squad took the loss of their former assistant driver.
Tim: And that begins to get into the acting, which we haven’t even talked at all about yet, but I give all the tank crew actors a lot of credit for just how far at the end of their ropes they seemed. Shia LaBeouf was especially good among the supporting cast, I thought, but they each played their part very, very well.
Eduardo: And considering that LaBeouf’s role was one we’ve seen in war films before, the God-fearing preacher of the unit, it was especially commendable. Same for Jon Bernthal as the sort of “mad dog” of the unit. Still, even with those familiar tropes, pretty good performances by both. And LeBeouf especially in the scene at the dinner table, when he’s quietly looking at Pitt while Bernthal’s character recounts the story of the horses. Very good work.
Erik: Agreed. I think LeBeouf gets overshadowed by his personal life and the terrible films he’s been in. But, when it’s required of him, he can put in a solid performance. Michael Pena was quite good as well. I wouldn’t have thought his role in a WWII film would be better than his role as Cesar Chavez, but I guess that’s just a matter of having a better script to work with – and perhaps a better director.
Tim: And let’s not forget that he and Ayer have worked together before – Pena had a flashier role in End of Watch and pulled that off very well.
Eduardo: Yeah, Pena has given Ayer some of his best performances. I imagine they probably have a solid working relationship, and it feels as if Ayer is very concerned with portraying what it’s really like in say…a tank, or a police squad car. He seems to really go for a high level of authenticity in those moments where the actors aren’t doing action scenes, but rather, fraternizing in their cars (or tanks) –
Tim: Motor vehicles.
Eduardo: – and I think that probably benefits his actors as well.
Erik: Ayer’s competence inspires some confidence in his handling of another squad-based film that will supposedly be coming out in a couple years – I’m talking about DC’s Suicide Squad, of course. And confidence is something I’ve been lacking in DC-based films for a while. Ayer may be coming into his own as an auteur.
Tim: Yeah, Ayer’s involvement in Suicide Squad oddly might make that the film that’s most likely to succeed (on a critical level; I’m sure Dawn of Justice et al. will surpass it at the box office). But I digress. Back to Fury. Final thoughts from either of you before we wrap this thing up?
Eduardo: I guess one brief mention regarding this other guy who was in the film…some Brad Pitt fellow. I also wanted to commend his performance, although I’d say, and this may very well just be me, but in many ways he was playing a David Ayer version of Lt. Aldo Raine (Inglorious Basterds). I’m being somewhat facetious when I say that, but I also seriously heard the hardened gruff in his voice of Aldo Raine, although not as cartoonish. Just a little thing I noticed, not much of a criticism either.
Erik: I can’t believe I liked a World War II film about a tank more than Godzilla. I’m kind of happy, but kind of depressed – then again, that’s my general disposition.