SPOILER WARNING: Though I won’t reveal plot points, there’s no way to talk about what makes “Fury” special without revealing its theme, which is a spoiler. This happens in the paragraph directly below and throughout. You’ve been warned.
Other than being a compelling, nailed-to-your seat from start-to-finish brutally violent war film, writer/director David Ayer’s “Fury” throws a narrative curveball you never see coming. “Fury” is a war film only on the surface. Within we are treated to an inexpressibly moving story of men dehumanized by war who find their redemption through Christ and duty.
Ayers hints at what’s to come with an opening image straight out of the Book of Revelation.
It’s April of 1945. The Nazis will surrender in less than a month. Until then, the SS is throwing everything they have at the advancing allied forces, including German children. The war is over. The Americans are deep inside German territory and on an inevitable march to Berlin. All that remains is madness, and in this madness holding on to your humanity and surviving is no longer an option.
Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), a battle scarred Army Sergeant, has kept his 5-man tank crew together and alive … until now. We don’t see the battle that cost Collier a man and left that man’s face lying around like a dirty t-shirt. We don’t need to. The scene is a nightmare of smoke, fire, twisted metal, and dead and broken men.
The death of their comrade rattled whatever sense of invincibility the surviving men had. Together since Africa, and although they have nothing in common, they are/were family — the kind of family that gets through a day by constantly digging at each other’s softest spots. This is a survival technique that keeps those spots numbed.
The men go by their war names: There’s “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), so named for his Christian religious convictions; “Gordo” (Michael Pena), an alcoholic Mexican who “speaks Mexican,” and “Coon-Ass” (John Bernthal), a belligerent Southerner barely holding it together.
Fresh from just eight weeks in the Army as a typist comes Norman, the wide-eyed naïf assigned as a replacement. The hazing from his new tank-mates is merciless, and when Norman is slow to machine gun an armed German boy, his initiation into killing is an unspeakable (and un-American) war crime.
By this time, I thought I had “Fury” figured out. Everything good and decent had been mocked and smeared, including the mythology of the Greatest Generation, Christianity, and innocence. Just when I was sure Ayer was staging a cynical, ugly, and nihilistic morality play that said the price of winning a war is the humanity, the very souls, of the men who fight it, everything flipped.
Although it’s what we’re programmed to expect from modern-day Hollywood, “Fury” is not the story of Norman losing his innocence to the horrors required to survive slaughter. Very quietly, and in a way that sneaks up on you, “Fury” is the story of how Norman’s innocence “saves” the others.
The performances, especially from Pitt and LaBeouf (yes, Shia LaBeouf), are absolutely outstanding. Ayer’s craftsmanship puts a knot in your stomach almost immediately and slowly tightens it throughout. The battle scenes are spectacularly staged, shockingly violent, and not marred by cheap, spell-breaking CGI.
“Fury” is filled with memorable scenes, particularly the opening moments that lay out the dynamics of the men’s relationships, and a quiet but unpredictable and intense sequence involving breakfast with two German women. A fierce battle with a seemingly invincible German Tiger tank doesn’t allow you to breathe.
“Fury” isn’t for kids. Just like the Bible, it is filled with harrowing violence, inhumanity, corrupted and fallen men, and the eternal message of God’s grace: that no matter how far you’ve fallen or for how long, the gift of Christ’s redemption is yours for the asking.
Ayer has not only created a WWII film superior to “Saving Private Ryan,” but a complicated, mature, affecting, sincere, and unforgettable Christian film.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC