The highway to hell is paved in the blood, sweat and tears of the American spirit in Brad Pitt’s latest vehicle: Fury. Not so quiet on the western front, director David Ayer’s miserable war zone drama follows the tracks of familiar instalments in the war genre by remembering only the gore of Saving Private Ryan (1998). It is bleak, relentlessly dismal and forever foreboding horrible things yet to come. Ayer’s tank tragedy does finally succumb to the tired storytelling of heroic men. For a film that makes its relevance by re-enacting the past, what was Ayer trying to observe about history? Not all that much, apparently.
Set in a revisionist 1945, Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) and his troop of greasy, weary-eyed comrades are given one seemingly impossible task after another in a bid for an Allied victory over the tireless German forces. The dysfunctional family of men, often indulging in playground antics, operate a Sherman tank. Following a chain of orders, the men answer the call to duty. An unplanned excursion with a formidable combatant leaves Collier’s platoon fighting viciously for their lives, stranded in thick of battle, and behind enemy lines. In pursuit of peace, they prepare for war.
The authentic aesthetic of Ayer’s riff on World War 2 combat is waxed in mute colours, deafened by the harsh sights and sounds of an all too ugly yet familiar battleground. With its soldiers clad in shaggy garments, the film’s convincingly troubled past is in part due to Ann B. Shepard’s believable costume design. Fury’s play on space, turning into a chamber drama as events unfurl inside the deadly tin can, concentrates on the gnawing psychological strife experienced by the five men. For them, cartons of cigarettes have the most currency in the ruinous war zone. Collier often exhales a thick puff of his smoky breath and, with the tip of the cigarette bud pinched in-between his lips, he maintains a calm demeanour. Perhaps a quick dose of nicotine is the only source of pleasure, or just that a cigarette offers the only warmth on an otherwise cold battlefield. During the routine action sequences, however, where bullets become sabres of whistling light that tears, chews and rips at the flesh of nameless soldiers, the film reveals Ayer’s numbed sensibility regarding the war genre. Fury shoots to thrill and the heat of battle in Ayer’s trenched warfare seems more tuned to an AC/DC ballad than a respectful tribute.
The politics of war are unforgiving and coldly unsympathetic as the clique of dishevelled soldiers are thrust into grave encounters with little odds for survival. The frontline is a metaphorical jungle; the furious tank central to the drama produces a mechanical roar as it navigates through battlefields of faceless cadavers and scattered debris. The war-ravaged environments are littered with the rubble of a once-thriving civilisation and amongst the trodden soil is the decaying remnants of the dying human soul of the Allied army. At one instance, Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf) preaches about “man’s justice” and Ayer’s darkly comic tone unveils the desensitised depictions of violence the modern news media has come to adopt. Fury is less an ode to the fallen, and more a continuous death knell that rings as loud as the crackling artillery on the distant horizon.
Pitt is enlisted as the poster boy for Ayer’s war. He is the embodiment of patriotism and heroism, a picture-perfect Uncle Sam for the glum times, with fistfuls of star-spangled hoorahs and a croaky voice with the texture of whisky. He offers morsels of wisdom and verbalises the plight of war with jibes at the needlessness of it all. “Ideals are peaceful”, Collier asserts, “history is violent”; almost proverbial, it unsubtly reveals the dialogue between Ayer and the past and his understanding of the genre and history. Collier too assumes a paternalistic figure, and not just for his crew, but also to father the fragile American psyche.
As boys become men, the tale of masculine woe is brought to the fore as the young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) hesitantly traces his slippery thumb over the trigger of a gunner turret. He is a figure of empathy until the film’s moral compass shatters under the weight of too many gory, gruesome and grisly deaths. Fury presents a hellish no-man’s land in its depiction of war and Ayer’s anachronistic apocalypse certainly appears dystopian on the surface. But there is something oddly utopian at its heart. Collier’s valour and the faux hopes that seem far too idealistic paint a vivid scene of a Herculean American force. A pulpy war indeed, the film conjures up a lone Captain America heroic essence. In rewriting history, Fury erects a romanticised image of its origin country’s nationhood. Regardless, the band of bonded brothers bravely march on, fighting against the tropes of a genre that has gained a revived relevance in the wake of overseas conflict. Ayer’s miserable portrait of conflict offers a war that no one deserves, but one that western culture needs to see right now.