War will destroy everything good and beautiful, including the ideals of the men fighting in it. That seems to be the thematic center of Fury, a thematic center encapsulated brilliantly in the sequence where German mortar fire destroys the building where Wardaddy and Norman had just found something approximating comfort, and the corpse of sweet young Emma lays next to the corpse of the piano Norman had just been playing.
That scene, which happens about halfway through Fury, is strong filmmaking. It follows up a long sequence where Norman (Logan Lerman) and Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) first find solace with two German women, then find that homey reprieve disrupted by the repugnant antics of their fellow tank crewmembers. Director David Ayer builds tension here masterfully, and the threat of violence is just as palpably psychological as it is physical. The men of Fury aren’t just interrupting this one domestic scene, we’re seeing the shadow this whole war will cast on domestic scenes of men returning home. The viciousness, the way good men have become, as Wardaddy calls Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), animals, is on display around a serene dining room table. Coon-Ass spreads his filth on Emma’s eggs and, Christlike, Wardaddy takes it into himself. This is their Last Supper, but instead of partaking of the Lord, their leader is explicitly consuming their sins.
What follows is more strong filmmaking; Ayer has established the geography of this town perfectly, so we know exactly where everything is in relation to Fury the tank, and when those mortar shells hit and we see them explode a building we know who is within. Even if the film’s relentlessly grim atmosphere didn’t let us know who would die in this mortar attack, the filmmaking itself makes it all clear to us even before Norman puts it together and runs up the pile of debris.
At this point in the film I wondered where all the Fury buzz was. This is a great movie, I thought, and it’s rich filmmaking. This is a movie that is tough but thoughtful, that is ugly but entrancing. This could be one of the films of the year.
And then the ending happened. I don’t know what occurred behind the scenes, I don’t know what the original script looked like, but the final battle sequence of Fury is so out of line with what came before that I found myself deflating in my seat, finally understanding where all the Fury buzz went.
Up to and through the confrontation with the Tiger tank Fury is a relentless film, unflinching in its portrayal of the hardships - moral and physical - of even a war as manifestly just as World War II. The movie spends a lot of time showing us the murk at the heart of even a good war; a horrifying ambush sequence sees a tank commander, burning alive, blow out his own brains to end the agony. The ambush only happens because Norman, new to the front, can’t bring himself to gun down a teenager holding a panzerfaust. When the ambush is over the camera reveals that the Germans who brought terror to the tank column weren’t even old enough to grow hair on their balls. They lay now dead.
This is Hitler’s total war, a desperate final phase as the Allies push towards Berlin and der fuhrer mobilized women and children to fight off the invaders. The Allies, sure they will win in the end, are absolutely demoralized by the way the Germans just will not give up, are hollowed out by the civilians Hitler forces them to kill. The remaining length of the war can be measured in days, but those days will be the ugliest yet. The Nazis must be stopped, but the price is high not just in soldiers but in decency.
And then the ending. The tank is mobilized to defend a crossroads; beyond the tank is a supply chain of doctors and support staff, and headed their way is a huge German regiment. If the Germans get to the barely-armed doctors it will be a massacre, and the Allies’ forward momentum will be stalled (but not ended. It’s vital to understand that this is a war that has been won before the movie even starts - what makes the horrors onscreen all the more horrifying is that they’re essentially pointless). This puts the men of Fury in a difficult position when their tank is disabled and the other tanks in their column destroyed - they can leave the crossroads on foot and doom the doctors and support personnel, or they can stay and face off against a battalion of soldiers and certainly die in the process.
Which is all well and good, but then Ayer makes a choice that is interesting, and begins to undercut the moral quagmire he has previously created - this isn’t just any battalion. This is a battalion of SS, the most despicable and evil soldiers in the Nazi army. They aren’t just field hands and kids pressed into service, they’re trained implements of anti-Semitic savagery. Killing these guys is in no way morally questionable - they should burn. What’s more, they’re in great shape, singing and clean and well-fed. This is to make them a threat, obviously, but visually they end up embodying the propaganda image of the robust Aryan soldier we sent our boys to confront. This isn’t the reality of war anymore.
The exquisite sense of geography Ayer showed in the assault on the town earlier is out the window here. Fury is immobile, so we technically understand the layout of the immediate area around the tank, but the sheer numbers of Nazi soldiers results in a battle whose exact structure is unclear. They come at the tank in waves to be mowed down, seemingly without much thought given to tactics until the very end of the battle. Fury suddenly turns into a standard Hollywood war movie, with people firing guns offscreen at random targets, free of any and all impact. Norman’s journey from being unwilling to kill to becoming a killing machine (and gaining his war name, Machine) actually ended BEFORE this battle, and so he’s just mowing down Germans by the dozens here, no different from Arnold Schwarzenegger in any other action film.
Within the tank the men begin to die. You knew they would before you even bought your ticket, and you knew that Norman would make it to the end as soon as he was introduced, but it’s always the question of how these men will die that makes the tension in a movie like this. And they end up dying in ways that are kind of Hollywood - where the rest of Fury is a gore-soaked nightmare, the men of the tank die in largely clean ways. Wardaddy is blown up by TWO potato mashers and his pretty features remain intact afterwards. This is a film where the previous tank gunner’s face had to be peeled off the interior of the vehicle, and our big movie star’s death is shockingly grue-free.
As they die their friends react in the standard, overwrought Hollywood style, the kind of emotional outbursts that only work in battle if the enemy politely waits for you to get your shit back together. In another film this wouldn’t be jarring, but coming from a movie where Coon-Ass pulls Norman from the corpse of the girl he just fucked (they fucked because they’re young and alive, Wardaddy says, and her death immediately afterwards hammers home the thin divide between alive and dead in a war zone) telling the boy that he’s wasting his time. Yes, the men of Fury are a dysfunctional family and they will be upset when they each die, but the film’s aesthetics make the broadness of these reactions feel utterly out of place.
The endless waves of bad guys to kill make that final battle a little too long, but I would have forgiven all of these issues if the movie had ended strongly. As Wardaddy dies and the potato mashers go off inside Fury, Norman - now christened Machine - worms his way out of the bottom of the tank, a strange birth metaphor. He’s able to potentially leave behind the trauma of the last two days, shed the Machine aspect of who he has become. All he has to do is lay quietly and let the remaining Germans move on.
But he’s spotted. And here the film trips in a big way, reversing its own themes in a manner that is unsupported internally. A young SS soldier sees Norman, hands up in surrender and fear in his eyes and then… ignores him. Maybe this soldier has the Ring of Solomon on his palm, same as Norman and Emma, but whatever the case he lets the young soldier live. The next day Norman re-enters the tank (reversing his rebirth for no good reason) and is rescued by soldiers who tell him he’s a hero. Norman rides off, the battered hulk of Fury reflected in the window against his face, and then the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of dead Germans as we wonder about the cost of it all.
I get what Ayer is doing with the SS soldier. The murkiness of morality goes both ways - there is good out there as well as bad. The crew of Fury dies, burning away the ugliness and leaving the possibility of hope. Those men were too far gone, even if they were too far gone in the service of good.
But Fritz the Friendly SS Soldier doesn’t feel like a counterargument. As he’s not a character he feels like an anomaly, a dice roll by the god who Coon-Ass scoffed at earlier. I like the concept that there is humanity all around, and that try as it might war cannot fully snuff it from us, but structurally the introduction of Fritz the Friendly SS Soldier is unable to offer support for that concept. He’s just a random blip in the otherwise grotesque carnage.
It could be argued that this is in fact the point, that Norman’s survival is all about the random luck of the moment. On some level the only reason Fury makes it to the end is because that Tiger opted to target another tank before them - a completely random choice that could have gone either way. But Fury proceeds to outfight that Tiger, and it’s established that this is a good crew. The movie doesn’t present us with war as just a series of random nightmares (although that element will always be there in any war movie worth its salt - why does that guy get the bullet and not this guy right next to him, a question that haunts survivors), it gives us a war that can be won through smarts and brutality, so the appearance of Fritz must be a statement. If only that statement had been better articulated by the movie itself.
I can only write this much about Fury because it’s so good; that it doesn’t work in the end in no way erases the extraordinary quality of the first two thirds of the film. I suspect that over time I can make peace with the ending of the movie, enjoying the visceral thrills of the action and the strength of the acting. Ayer takes a moment before the big battle to have the men relax and drink and smoke and it’s one of the most powerful moments of its kind I have ever seen, a moment of unfettered camaraderie and resignation that is moving and even kind of inspiring. What comes next can’t compete with this moment, which is the true climax of the film.
So even in finding myself disappointed by the ending of Fury I find the joy of a movie worth engaging, worth talking about, worth examining. That brings me full circle, and I once again wonder where all the buzz is on Fury. This is a movie worth the attention.