In 'Fury,' Brad Pitt Crosses the Line Into Narcissism

David Ayer's World War Two drama expresses a fairly simple agenda for this stability-hungry era.

Fury Written and directed by David Ayer; with Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg

Go to war and become a man – that is one of the messages of David Ayer’s film, whose star, Brad Pitt, was also one of the executive producers and clearly the moving force behind the project. “Fury” opens with a shot of a man riding toward us on a horse till we finally see him up close – a classic shot that opened many Westerns, where the hero was seemingly born on the screen before our eyes. In “Fury,” however, the man gradually revealed to us turns out to be a Nazi officer. This opening is the only moment in the entire movie when Ayer seems to be aiming for irony – but he actually is not.

All through the 134 minutes of “Fury,” I wondered what its creators were thinking when they decided to make this movie at this particular moment, when the world is unsettled in so many ways. The answer, however, is already implied in the question. Set in Germany in April 1945, “Fury” (the word, written in white on the tank that serves as the heroes’ “home,” is seen in the film so many times that we can’t help but understand it as an expression of global anxiety) may depict the chaotic reality of war, but it is also a hymn to masculinity, heroism and sacrifice. It is no accident that this hymn is set against the backdrop of World War Two, which has come to be remembered as the last war whose values were entirely coherent and stable.

Almost 70 years after the fact, it is still legitimate to join the word “fuck” to the word “Nazis,” and the ability to do so expresses a nostalgic yearning for something that can present a certain ideal to a destabilized world. In one scene of Ayer’s cliché-packed film, sergeant Don Collier (Pitt), known to his men as “Wardaddy,” utters the following insight: “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” Without asking how deep or true this claim actually is, it seems as though “Fury,” an essentially conventional picture filled with as much idealism as violence, tries to connect the two parts of the hero’s statement. Its conventionality therefore takes on a delusive, even bizarre form.

“Fury” is directed with skill and benefits from every possible technological capability. It is loud and extravagant, but at heart it might actually have been made during World War Two or just after it. Don is the tough, sensitive, eccentric commander, whose men idolize him and forgive his bluntness because he is their leader and father figure, a brave man who keeps his cool under fire. He breaks down only when no one can see him, and his subordinates’ faith in him is complete. They, meanwhile, are the contemporary spin on the soldiers of different origins and personalities who populated the war films of earlier times; each of them, like the sergeant, has a nickname. “Bible” (Shia LaBoeuf) is religious (“Fury” is generally filled with religious allusions that enhance its evident conservatism); “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal) is a Southern redneck, who sometimes reminded me of the rapists in John Boorman’s “Deliverance”; and “Gordo” (Michael Peña) is a Mexican American. These four are joined by the movie’s most stereotypical hero: the rookie, the inexperienced young soldier frightened and horrified by war, whom we’ve seen in “All Quiet on the Western Front” and countless other war movies. In this case his name is Norman, a role for which the filmmakers unfortunately cast Logan Lerman, whose delicate face and wide eyes just drip sensitivity. An actor whose exterior does not immediately announce his stereotypical essence might have added some complexity to “Fury,” but then he would not have served the filmmakers’ vision quite so well. Don takes Norman under his wing in order to teach him the skills of warfare – kill or be killed, he tells him – and the question of whether or not Norman will become a sophisticated Nazi-killer who deserves a nickname of his own almost does not need to be answered.

“Fury” has an episodic structure. We travel with the tank, its commander and the four soldiers from site to site, from city to city, from battle to battle. War in Ayer’s movie is a spectacular inferno, and it thus raises all the same questions the genre has always raised. But “Fury” does not confront the genre’s conventions with the same sophistication as the best war pictures of recent decades, from Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (which also starred Brad Pitt as an even more enthusiastic Nazi-killer). Rather, it uses them in the most direct, basic, almost primitive way possible (and my use of the word “primitive” is not meant to deny that “Fury” is a highly sophisticated creation in the way it is designed to push our buttons and activate us emotionally and ideologically).

In one of the movie’s major scenes, set in a newly captured town, Don and Norman enter the apartment of two frightened German women: the fortyish Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and her lovely young cousin Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). I won’t describe what happens in this scene, which is the most charged and compelling in the film. I will say, however, that all the contradictions, manipulations and ploys “Fury” uses to turn itself into a hymn flow into the scene, one of whose goals is to complete Norman’s transformation into a man; its ending is, perhaps, the movie’s most banal and crude manipulation.

“Fury” is also a movie about Brad Pitt as a movie star and film hero. I do not question Pitt’s talent or his importance in the current Hollywood hierarchy; his presence, with his trendy hairstyle, fills the film, but it is also an entirely narcissistic performance. The narcissism is evident in every gesture he makes, in every line he delivers. Like the movie itself, whose contradictions conceal a fairly simple agenda for this stability-hungry era, Brad Pitt tries to present himself here as a model of admirable masculinity. There is a moment when a film star crosses the line and becomes somewhat unpleasant, and “Fury” provides Pitt with that line – and with ample opportunity to cross it.