There’s an early scene in David Ayer’s WWII film Fury where a fresh recruit has an emotional breakdown inside a tank. He pelts the walls with exasperated fists, writhes in his seat, wails to whoever will listen that he simply cannot perform the task at hand. He doesn’t have it in him. His commander’s response?
“Turn off the goddamn intercom if you’re gonna bawl like that.”
David Ayer is a writer-director with a conflicted history of exploring men and violence. Still yet to produce a screenplay that isn’t rooted in the male camaraderie shared between cops, criminals or soldiers, Ayer’s output has remained consistently torn between underlining the perils of unchecked masculinity and ignorantly perpetuating it.
For every cautionary portrait of the male id run rampant, there’s another to argue that even in the throes of war, crime and corruption, no force is stronger than the trash-talking, back-slapping bond shared between bros. For the most part, this recurrent fascination has failed to yield very much of interest. But while his latest picture marks no real deviations in focus, it’s at least the first of Ayer’s films to truly nail the slippery, contradictory tensions of masculinity.
David Denby of the New Yorker has already cited Fury as “one of the great war movies – right near the top.” Perhaps not quite, but it is admittedly as visceral and battering an entry as we’ve seen in some time. Feeding us violence senselessly and ceaselessly, it’s an action picture not so much concerned with objectives and payoffs. Rather, Fury feels more like a doom-wreathed slow-march into the breach, in which death is imminent and everywhere.
Even with World War 2’s conclusion just around the corner, the fatalism is pervasive. For every open green field we see is another of blood and brick, smoke and muck. Children hang from building windows. Muddy bodies squelch beneath tank tread. The effect is both harrowing and hallucinatory.
Machismo is not the opposite pole to the weakness of fear. It is just an alternative.
But as impressive a war film as it often is, Fury is best measured against Ayer’s own body of work. A filmmaker always deeply attracted to what it is that constitutes masculinity, Ayer inevitably strikes his most compelling balance with a film that never feels completely sure. When Logan Lerman’s boyish recruit Norman reports for duty, his comrades immediately take to humiliating him. His commanding officer, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (played with steely verve by Brad Pitt), assumes he is the result of some sort of mistake. Surely this feeble, fresh-faced child doesn’t belong amidst the hardened, seething brutality of men. But we’ve seen the seams of this façade. We saw the cracks only minutes earlier as Collier crouched to his knees alone, his stoic expression contorting to one of panic. When Norman breaks down a few scenes later, Collier instructing him to turn off his radio feels especially significant. You can be weak, so long as you are not seen or heard as weak.
But eventually, we see all manner of anxieties and vulnerabilities puncture the veneer of every man in the crew. These are men, after all; not in the postured macho-aggressive sense of the word, but the flailing, fragile creature we’ve always been, endlessly wrestling with our own insignificance. Machismo is not the opposite pole to the weakness of fear. It is just an alternative. A coping mechanism. It is the broth of hate that overcomes Collier as a captured SS officer enters his camp. The expletives hissed from Norman’s lips as his bullets tear through German flesh. The urge to force a brawl with another man rather than watch him grieve. Fury is not just the name of the tank, seen crudely painted on its cannon throughout. It is the very force behind the wheel, flowing out of every pore, staining all it touches.
The film’s conclusion sees Pitt and his crew decide to stand their ground against a force of SS troops 300 strong. We hear swelling strings, both rousing and ominous, seemingly intended to convince us that this is an act of valor or nobility. But by this point, it’s readily apparent that senseless brutality is one of the only modes left that these men know how to operate in. Once the demon is out of the box, it’s difficult to wedge him back in.
There’s a long sequence midway through Fury that has already been the subject of much discussion. Collier and Norman enter the home of two German women. Norman makes love to one of them. Collier washes and shaves. The other woman cooks eggs. Comparative to the vicious bloodletting on either side, it’s a relatively quiet diversion. But looming over all is the implicit threat of violence; even before the rest of the crew show up, the whole affair is cruelly tense. When the others do stumble in – drunk, horny and violent – the scene erupts uncomfortably.
In some senses, this is the film’s real conclusion. Despite the pleasant, cordial trimmings of domesticity – the plates, the piano, the warmth – this is an illusion that cannot be sustained. These men can’t seem to contain their lust, their aggression, their painful memories, their tears. Not anymore. Just masquerading in normalcy is too difficult. They’re passed that. A regular existence will never be attained again. That’s why it’s fairly easy to reject the heroic framing of the film’s climax. We already know these men and they no longer know anything else. Just fury.