A gloom hangs over writer-director David Ayer's brutal war drama Fury that only the audience can see. It's April 1945, and we know that in weeks the Nazis will surrender. The war is already over — Hitler just hasn't admitted it. American sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) suspects as much, but he isn't sure. And so he and the four other men in his tank roll on through the German countryside, shooting and dodging a final barrage of bullets that is no less fatal for being futile.
This is an ugly part of an ugly war, and Ayer wallows in it. Instead of flags and patriotism, Fury is about filth: the basins of blood, the smears on the soldiers' exhausted faces, the bodies pushed around by bulldozers and a decomposing corpse that's melted into the mud. (Thank heavens Ayer has no way to make us smell the inside of the tank.) What beauty remains is fleeting: an overly symbolic white horse; a pretty, sad-eyed blond; a brief shot of the sky with dozens of planes streaking wingtip-to-wingtip like a fine-tooth comb. Yet the film won't shake off the threat of death long enough to let us enjoy these pleasures. Instead, even happiness comes draped in dread. At any minute, Ayer could punish us for letting our guard down.
The men's moods are equally dark. Collier's team — dumb hick Grady (Jon Bernthal), temperamental but wounded Gordo (Michael Peña) and stock religious guy Bible (Shia LaBeouf, groomed like Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) — has been together since Africa and has had the mixed fortune of surviving every battle. The squad's fifth man has just been shot, and the first thing his replacement, a typist named Norman (Logan Lerman), is ordered to do is mop up his predecessor's blood and dispose of his face, which has been flung in the corner like melted cheese.
This is a film about present-traumatic stress disorder, a condition none of the men have words to express. Ayer crams three years of anguish into the first 30 minutes, horrors we get no time to process. The camera whips past starving women butchering horses, and rooms of German aristocrats who have committed suicide, so that on some dark, animal level, Fury makes us empathize with these pitiless American heroes who can't care about anything or anyone. Collier's men are neutral toward their home country and the families they've left behind, who go unmentioned, as though they're fantasies these soldiers no longer hope to see. They're cruel to the Germans, who just won't give up. When the Americans march an SS soldier through their camp, Collier attacks him with the reflexive rage of a fighting dog.
But they're also cruel to innocents like Norman who don't understand the life-and-death decisions they've had to make — especially now that the SS has forced every boy who can fight into the German army. Norman can't pull the trigger on a child soldier, and hesitates long enough to get another Yankee killed. A furious Collier orders him to fire even if the enemy is "a baby with a butter knife," and then he and the gang start scuffing up Norman's soul. In one scene, Collier commands Norman to execute an unarmed German. The most wrenching thing about the will-he-or-won't-he suspense is how little everyone else in the film cares. They've seen so much death that all they can do is stand on the sidelines and snicker.
Collier is scary, and if he weren't played by Brad Pitt, an actor who gravitates to role models, the part would be fully terrifying. He's one of the good guys, of course — in 70 years, Hollywood has never dared question the innate sainthood of the Greatest Generation. Yet when he bursts into the apartment of two German girls, with Norman trotting behind, there's a long and terrible pause where we aren't sure if the women are safe. They are and they aren't. Collier isn't loutish enough for rape; he just assumes they'll half-willingly drop their skirts for a half-dozen fresh eggs.
Fury is structured like a string of grenades. Collier's tank just keeps chugging toward the next explosion, and the men inside are so fixated on survival that no one takes the time to ask what it all means. Perhaps at this time and this place, war means nothing — it's just what they do because they've forgotten everything else. But Ayer has rolled his film into a dead end. He's ground us down into feeling that life is trivial, yet he needs a finale that makes us care about the fate of Collier's crew. In trying to say that death is both noble and pointless, Fury makes the fatal mistake of so many war movies: It divides up the battlefield so that our deaths are lofty and the enemies' deaths mean nothing. For every cut on the Americans' arms, a dozen Germans are crushed like toy soldiers. It's a queasy climax for a film that otherwise strives to keep everyone equal in the muck. Fortunately, the images that linger aren't of this post-dated propaganda, but of morbid absurdity, which is Ayer's gift: an aerial shot of two rival tanks circling each other side by side, each desperate to get the better shot. Watching from above, it makes the final days of World War II look like a chess game where they're out of pawns to sacrifice, but neither side will draw.