After Morten Tyldum kicked off this year’s London Film Festival with the story of a man who fought the Second World War from a shed in Buckinghamshire, David Ayer closes it with one that follows the men who fought it from inside a mobile can on the frontline. Bouncing back after the repugnant Sabotage, Ayer avoids the sensationalism hinted in the film’s trailer (this is not, mercifully, another film about how America won the War), and reveals Fury to be an unforgivably brutal depiction of tank warfare.
It’s April 1945, and Allied Forces are very close to knocking down Hitler’s front door. Leading the charge is the eponymous ‘Fury’, a US Sherman tank that’s manned by a seasoned sergeant (Brad Pitt) and his band of battle-hardened brothers (Shia LeBeouf, Michael Peña, & Jon Bernthal). When we first meet them, the men are united in grief for a fallen comrade, but the army, of course, always has a ready if not-so-willing replacement. Enter fresh-faced former desk clerk Norman (Logan Lerman), a fumbling new recruit who has about as much tank experience as you or I.
Norman is the audience‘s eyes into this world of ceaseless carnage. His inevitable transformation into ferocious killing machine guides the narrative, and as such Ayer ensures that much of the horror Norman sees is displayed on the screen. During the early scenes however, the director lays it on a bit thick, determined to accentuate the barbarity of conflict with an endless spew of desensitizing war wound images.
For this first 20 minutes or so, Fury is a particularly hard film to watch. Visual rounds of heads popping and limbs flying are intercut into an animalistic milieu of testosterone that, much like the aforementioned Sabotage, is too unpleasant to ever be involving. Unlike Sabotage though, it serves an eventual purpose, the visceral aesthetic and fierce tone compounding to present a very real and very horrific depiction of war.
Admirably, Ayer’s script refuses to try and impart a preachy or distracting message to the viewer, it simply wants to illustrate the terrible hardships endured so that we may be free today. Much of its lasting effect hinges on the performances. Though Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal are never given the focus necessary to make an impact – Peña is the drunk funny one, Bernthal is the aggressive bullying one – the other three members of Fury’s crew are handled superbly.
Pitt is a complex and commanding presence, his authoritative nature augmented with an understated pain that we see glimmer in his eyes, revealing a devastating truth about the agony felt by all who fought on the front line. LeBeouf plunges newfound depths (no, really), as the likeable religious believer stuck in place where God has no control. And Lerman carries our hearts as the young boy forced into an impossible situation, perfectly reflecting Norman’s realisation that there’s no going back from what he has witnessed.
Bolstered by the performances, Ayer launches a full-scale assault on the senses. His mud-splattered and blood-soaked aesthetic paints a raw and visceral picture of warfare that’s reinforced with grey hues of gritty grimness. Inside the tank meanwhile, Roman Vasyanov’s camera comes to its own, the permanently close quarters punctuating the atmosphere with a claustrophobic air. And it’s all carried off with a blistering pace, the savage action sequences pummelling you with the logistical challenges of fighting from within a tank and the stresses of constantly being placed in a life-threatening situation.
Ayer does trip at times as he tries to reach his conclusion, clearly determined to stick to his guns while ensuring the ending doesn’t have the same pacifying effect of the opening. What he conjures is something in-between, but it does nothing to belittle the film’s cogency. Ayer’s film is a harrowing portrayal of hardships felt by real heroes, and a furious return to form for the director.