David Ayer bit off a whole hell of a lot on the World War II drama “Fury.” I'm not sure he could chew it all, but it's fascinating to watch the bevy of ideas bounce around on the screen nevertheless. It's a loud, bloody, gut-punching depiction, one that may or may not be too unsettling to appeal to Academy types but is still the best work Ayer has done, the most unflinching, and the most intriguing, certainly.
In characterizing the movie as “one of the most daring studio movies in an awards season that will bring several World War II films,” The New York Times had it pegged a few months back. This is the WWII your grandfather wouldn't talk about. It was bad. That point is probably driven home too much, even. “This is war, and war is hell.” After all, you can only observe what a .50 caliber machine gun can do to a human body so many times before the desired effect gives way to numbing.
I wouldn't call it gratuitous, though. It's all based on Ayer's research and the photography he saw from the thick of it. It wasn't pretty. (Ayer himself also served his time in the U.S. Navy.)
That having been said, the film features one of the most amazing sequences I've ever seen in a war film. It's the kind of thing you might even expect to be cut from a movie like this (which is already closing in on 140 minutes). In it, Ayer tells an entire story of emotion and atmosphere with actors Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Alicia von Rittberg and Stella Stocker. It's a reprieve from the turmoil, and then the rude awakening that reminds you: there is no reprieve. It's pretty bold to have left that in there in tact, given that it stretches for a good 20 minutes. It sort of reminded me of the French plantation sequence from “Apocalypse Now Redux,” and it's flashes like that which really had me psyched watching the movie.
I can see now, too, why I kept hearing that the film was going through such turbulent shifts in recent weeks and months. What I saw even differed from the last report I received, as whole chunks were being moved around and backstory elements (eventually dumped, and probably for the better) were being tinkered with as the film paced toward completion just three weeks ahead of release. It's the kind of thing where the movie is so full that it's sort of bursting at the seams, despite being pretty streamlined narratively.
But Oscars, I don't know. I honestly don't know how that group would respond to seeing a head or two blasted off by tank fire. The opening of “Saving Private Ryan” is one thing, and yeah, they've gone in for this level of violence on stuff like “Django Unchained” in recent years, but here the threat of gore is at every turn. Scattered throughout are some truly dynamic action beats featuring tank warfare that are unique in the genre, molded into tangible tension by a legend in the editing field, Dody Dorn. That puts some of “Fury” in its own territory as something we haven't quite seen before. But it's a pretty distinguished lineage the film is stacked up against.
You get into nebulous territory when qualifying “WWII films” that have received Academy attention (to say nothing of “war films”). But battleground pics akin to “Fury” that did make the cut include “Inglourious Basterds,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Patton,” “The Longest Day” and “The Guns of Navarone.” It's not a hugely common occurrence, particularly of late. And there is Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken” still to come. But we'll see how it settles.
Outside of the big categories, we can certainly expect the various branches to seriously consider it. The sound mix is off the chain, the noise of gunfire and shrapnel enveloping the soundtrack with precision rather than a cacophony of effects. If you've never heard what it (probably) sounds like when an 88mm Tiger-blasted round ricochets off an M4 Sherman tank and sails off toward the horizon, well, you will after this movie. And Steven Price's score is pretty ominous and striking throughout, too, never going for the jugular but maintaining an epic quality and dabbling in some of that sound-effects-as-score approach that won him an Oscar for “Gravity.”
Most notable (along with Dorn's aforementioned editorial prowess) is Roman Vasyanov's moody 35mm photography. This is a huge leap from something like “End of Watch” and Vasyanov finds more than his fair share of iconic images throughout the course of the film. He might even be showing off a little too much, but it's still gorgeous. As one of the few celluloid players in the cinematography race, I wouldn't be surprised if the lensers got behind this.
(And since some of you will ask, performances will be tough. Logan Lerman is great and consistent but doesn't get too many moments to really chew on things, while Pitt, I thought, had a presence in this movie that we haven't really felt out of him for a while. I don't necessarily think that means he can crack such a competitive Best Actor race, but he tapped into something here nevertheless. Shia LaBeouf also stood out to me in a small but carved-out role.)
The movie goes out into the world a week from today, and really, Sony knows they need it to make money for any awards talk to mean much of anything. So we'll assess that in due time. But I wouldn't let any one person's opinion of the movie sway you on any of this. I expect this might be quite the divisive film. But what I saw was a solid movie, acted wonderfully by a tight ensemble that felt organic.
So for what that's worth…
“Fury” opens in theaters Oct. 17.