Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'Fury' (2014) directed by David Ayer [LFF 2014]

I should hate a film where a rough n' tumble gang of American soldiers mow down a faceless horde of baddies.  But Fury's baddies are Nazis - fuck those guys.   Nazis stand alongside zombies and killer robots as the guilt-free massacre of choice; you can have your hero mow down near-infinite numbers of them in casual bloodlust and still maintain audience sympathy. David Ayer's Fury tests this theory to breaking point, the film wading hip deep through tattered, bloody SS uniforms and bullet-punctured Swastikas.

The titular Fury is a beaten-up, battle-scarred Sherman tank full of beaten-up, battle-scarred men: Sergeant 'Wardaddy' (Brad Pitt), Bible (Shia LaBeouf), Gordo (Michael Peña), and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal).  Set in April 1945, the film shows us the final Allied push into Germany. Victory is all but assured at this point, but pockets of desperate Nazi resistance remain.  So the 2nd Armored Division is tasked with liberating town after town in anticipation of delivering the final blow on the streets of Berlin.

It's grimly miserable work, the remaining Nazi soldiers either suicidal fanatics or child conscripts, the civilians cowed into submission after years of war and the countryside ruinous and muddy.  Our window into this world is Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a US Army typist who through an administrative error has been assigned duty inside Fury. Norman's boyish face looks positively virginal next to the existing crew, who look made out of worn-out shoe leather.  They mock his naivety, hate his innate pacifism and resent his inexperience endangering them.  So Wardaddy decides to bust this kid's cherry, the film chronicling the transformation of Norman, typist into Machine, bloodsoaked warrior.

In Fury, Ayer elevates war to religious calling.  The soldiers, cocooned within the safety of their tank are painted as crusaders, devoted to enacting violence upon their enemies. Spiritual ecstasy is achieved via blasting high caliber rounds through Nazi flesh, the hitherto numbed characters springing to energised life and yelling "DIE YOU NAZI FUCKS!!!". Within this cloistered order, the tank is cathedral, Wardaddy is high priest with 'Bible' as his gunner. The innocent Norman is an initiate to this order, only truly accepted once he's been baptised in blood and rechristened 'Machine'.

It's perhaps not surprising then that one of the closing images is of the tank at the dead centre of a cruciform surrounded by hundreds of blown-apart Nazi corpses.  The image of a war machine on the cross, sacrificed to absolve us of our sins is a pretty damn heavy symbol to throw our way - but what the hell does it mean?

Ayer, a former military man himself, is exploring the distinctions between the 'Golden Generation' that came through the depression and fought World War II and the modern first world - and finding us lacking.  It's notable that Norman, the audience viewpoint, is a mild-mannered typist with no experience of real hardship.  He is us; sat behind our computers tapping away online, tasting war through videogames and action movies.

Fury venerates the Golden Generation, placing them within an amped-up nightmare war that even actual surviving veterans point out is a bit too intense.  Fury's argument is that when push comes to shove we need to relinquish kindness and transform ourselves into brutal executioners, reaching deep within ourselves to unlock our killer instinct.  

With Brad Pitt as a character that takes inordinate pleasure from killing Nazis, comparisons have inevitably been made to Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.  A more worthwhile point of comparison is Basterds' film-within-a-film, Stolz der Nation, a faux-Nazi propaganda film where a heroic sniper makes a last stand against hordes of faceless Allied troops.  In Basterds, this film satirises the audience's bloodlust for dead Nazis - and it structurally, visually and tonally echoes Fury.

So where does that leave Fury? A Christological propaganda film that deifies soldiers and killing and encourages us to emulate them?  That's not good!  Also a little worrying is Ayer's technical excellence; the battle scenes are an overwhelming experience with pinpoint perfect editing, sound design and score.  It batters down your critical faculties, emotionally involving you in sadistic satisfaction at launching volleys of bullets into warm Nazi flesh.  

The simple fact that we're vicariously enjoying massacring fascists soothes a little bit - after all if anyone's got it coming it's these bastards.  But a film taking this much salacious pleasure in mass murder, no matter who the enemy, slips into military pornography.  I'm not sure what to make of Fury.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, but the more I think about it, the more that enjoyment freaks me out.  


Fury is released today.

Thanks to Vargo of Cinema Discusso for the religious observations

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