Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stuck in the mud of war

Brad Pitt leads a tank crew in a movie full of harrowing war imagery.
By April of 1945, U.S. troops had advanced deep into German territory. For Germany, the war already was lost. Humiliation and surrender loomed.

Despite being set on the eve of the impending Allied triumph, the mood of director David Ayer's Fury remains forbidding and dark. Seldom has victory looked quite this grim.

If there's freshness in Ayer's approach, it's found just here: It doesn't really matter whether soldiers are fighting on the first or last day of a war: Many will die. Brutality doesn't stop just because the end is near.

The opening image of Ayer's movie has a haunting, nearly surreal quality. A German soldier rides a white horse onto an open field. We don't know where the soldier's headed or why he's on horse back.

Seconds later, a lone figure springs from a U.S. tank. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) leaps on the German officer, pulls him off his horse and stabs him to death.

In one image, Ayer vanquishes any thoughts we might have had about the romance of war.

Fury offers lots more unsettling imagery, sights presumably intended to make us see the war with fresh eyes, to absorb its intensity and fear in ways that we haven't yet experienced. To say Fury has a kind of bleak power may sound like a turn-off, but that's precisely what we're supposed to feel with a movie such as this.

Pitt's performance as an Army sergeant in charge of a war-weary tank crew inevitably will remind audiences of the character he played in Inglourious Basterds, but Pitt's Collier is more complex than Lt. Aldo Raine.

A hardened veteran, Collier parcels out his human impulses sparingly, almost as if he's afraid of tapping out an already depleted supply.

The rest of Collier's crew consists of Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady "Coon Ass" Travis (John Bernthal). Scott Eastwood portrays Sergeant Miles, another member of the crew.

The plot -- hardly a groundbreaker -- begins when a newbie (Logan Lerman) joins Collier's tank crew in what seems a desperate or possibly haphazard move by the Army.

Lerman's Norman Ellison has spent most of the war as a clerk typist. He has no tank training, and makes a reluctant warrior, someone whose unwillingness to kill is seen as a threat by his comrades in arms.

Much of the story involves the ways in which Lerman's character is toughened -- at first against his will and later with vengeful relish.

In Ayer's world, the members of the tank crew are bonded, but they're not always admirable. Bernthal's Travis can seem like a borderline sadist. So does Collier, at times.

The point, of course, is that the savagery of war tends to turn men into brutes regardless of what uniform they happen to be wearing.

The actors all mold their performances to fit the dreary, mud-soaked landscapes that become another character in the hands of cinematographer Roman Vasyanov.

The movie offers up equal amounts of combat and desperation, although there's an interlude in which Collier and Ellison enter the apartment of a couple of German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg). The soldiers are in a town that just has been taken. Some of them are looking for sex and spoils.

At first, the scene humanizes Collier, but there's a terrible, growing tension when the rest of the tank crew shows up, wondering why they've been excluded from what appears to be a moment's pleasure and respite.

Ayer made his cinematic bones with viscerally charged movies such as End of Watch, which focused on cops in South Central Los Angeles. He makes full use of his talent for violent immediacy here, bringing it to scene-after-scene.

Fury also reminds us that shocking sights can become routine if seen in abundance: Dead bodies are flatted by tank treads, and the ugliness of war unfolds under dark, apprehensive skies.

The movie's finale involves a terrible battle in which Collier's crew (unbelievably, I think) decides to face an entire SS battalion, a decision that's tantamount to a death sentence. Is it courage or a death wish from soldiers who know they'll never again adjust to normal life? Will anyone survive?

When stripped of all its grim atmospherics, Fury may not seem radically different from lots of other war movies that follow small groups of men into the teeth of war.

But story arc may not be the point here: Ayer seems to be trying to give us a more vividly disturbing picture than the one sometimes associated with the so-called Greatest Generation.

With hindsight, idealism may be possible. On the battlefield, it's a forgotten luxury.

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