25 October 2014

Review: Fury (David Ayer, USA, 2014)


2014, 136mins, 15
Director: David Ayer 
Writer: David Ayer 
Cast includes: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal 
UK Release Date: 23rd October 2014 

War is hell. A dingy, merciless exercise in depravity, a haunting example of how viciously people struggle to persevere. The casualties can't simply be distilled to bodies either. The tortured minds and hearts of those involved in conflict scar entire generations, and often darken national heritage for decades. David Ayer's “Fury” does a superb job of envisioning the savage realities of war, refreshingly filtering guilt and inhumanity through the prism of WW2. Pictures like “Saving Private Ryan” do a remarkable job of depicting horror in fits and bursts, but often, Hollywood adopts a decisive perspective, served a comfortable antagonist in the form of Adolf Hitler. After all, nobody likes a Nazi, lending WW2 a breakdown of hero and villain that potentially robs recreation of truth. “Fury”doesn't adopt such falsity, falling tonally in line with the great, troubling Vietnam pictures of the 70s and 80s. War only serves to ruin lives, Ayer's story showing how even the winners end up losing.

Germany in 1945. The war is closing, with the Allies surging into Hitler's domain, destroying the last fragments of resistance. The German's are pouring everything forward, lumping women and children into their ranks, complicating the rules of engagement even further. Hank Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) has been part of the fracas for years, moving across Africa and into Europe, keen to finish the bloody work at hand. Wardaddy commands a tank known as “Fury”, operated by a ragtag team of young men, all obviously impacted by the slaughter. Into their midst comes Norman (Logan Lerman), an inexperienced clerk tasked with replacing a late crew member, a fresh-faced innocent unaccustomed to the perils of combat. As the Germans become more desperate, the demands of war intensify, meaning Wardaddy must indoctrinate his new recruit with ruthless urgency.

Ayer is most notable for having written 2001's “Training Day”, but has been working steadily as a director for almost a decade now. His output has been erratic, ranging from the successful “End of Watch” to this year's deplorable “Sabotage”, the spine of his filmography defined by macho types landed in the shit. “Fury” doesn't break the pattern, and ultimately falls between the best and worst of the film-maker's oeuvre, but it's visually his most accomplished piece to date. The production design is impeccable, “Fury” built around an assortment of broken German communities and hopeless military camps, all captured with greying cinematography that encapsulates the hopelessness at hand. It's established early that the war is virtually over, but the world “Fury” posits doesn't feel like one with victory etched on the horizon. No matter the stage of conflict, the film seeks to underscore the depressing nature of men killing men, and the fragile standard of human life. Ayer has never been a director to shy from brutality, and whether it be the despondent colour palette or the visceral sight of children hanging, he constantly seeks to extol the terrors of military action. As a sobering spectacle the feature is faultless.

“Fury” wants to operate in the band of brothers tradition, trailing its protagonists along a grisly road before landing them in a finale modelled after Thermopylae. Individually each of these characters has an interesting soul, the highlight probably being LaBeouf's deeply religious gunman. There's a beautiful moment in the opening act, during which he descends from the tank to pray with a dying German, as his colleagues ransack the corpses of other men. It's a an arresting and memorable sequence, a distinctive oasis of compassion, and one that renders the character memorable, but unfortunately the same thought and balance never translates to the team as a whole. We're explicitly told these men have spent years together, but their bond never runs deep enough, and Ayer juggles the animosity within the group clumsily. It becomes impossible to predict how any one character is going to react alongside another. It's probable the film-maker is trying to mirror the schizophrenic fortunes of battle through the crew, but the results are frustrating. Even the journey of Lerman's newbie – a simple coming of age through consternation arc – doesn't evolve organically. One moment he's a frightened mouse, questioning the ethical implications of executions, the next he mows Nazis down with rampant enthusiasm. Ayer provides a catalyst for the change, but it's not articulated with enough maturity or given enough time to brew, rendering the transformation rushed. Ayer has excelled with character before, so to see him struggle is jarring.

 The middle portion sags, spreading itself thinly and plying too little focus to plot or relations. A few moments of intimacy register, but often Ayer fails to arrange satisfactory pay-offs. The action appears stagnant until the finish, tanks simply don't pack the visual allure of other sorts of vehicle. The dank claustrophobia of the war machine's interior is suitably articulated, but watching two of these behemoths slowly taking pot-shots at each other in a field isn't overly thrilling. Ayer edits these sequences with admirable energy, but the problem lies in concept rather than execution. The movie's last stand is typically oppressive, but does a better job of accessing the squad's vulnerability. They know it's a doomed mission, and only here does true brotherly love begin to simmer, and believable growth and realisation occur. Had the writing maintained this standard throughout, the catharsis of “Fury” may have translated as masterful. In its current form it's executed with visual panache and dark beauty (it's all set against smoke bombs and a gorgeously situated farmhouse in flames). It lacks nuance.

History buffs and genre aficionados should find the aesthetic captivating, and Ayer's unrelenting dedication to the “war ain't for pussies” mantra rewarding. Soaking up the mood and detailed set design is where the majority of pleasure lies, and the ending attains a sort of rousing, mythic quality, even if the characters never animate to their fullest potential. Dramatically the movie achieves only confusion, its haunted populace achingly unrefined and guided with insufficient clarity. “Fury” lets us know what a bitch war can be; but sadly misfires in painting a compelling portrait of its victims.

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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