The first job given to Norman Ellison, the fresh-faced new Army recruit played by Logan Lerman in the World War II drama Fury, is to clean the remains of his predecessor out of the tank to which he's been assigned. The body's already been carted away, but there's splattered viscera against one of the walls to be mopped up, blood to be wiped away. And then, horribly, Ellison finds an unmistakable chunk of the dead guy's face, a sight that causes him to clamber outside and throw up in front of his indifferent colleagues.
Fury, which is written and directed by David Ayer (End of Watch, Sabotage) and opens in theaters on Oct. 17, is peppered with merciless moments like that. Like Saving Private Ryan, it's a World War II movie filled with urgency to get out from under the prettier images of heroism and valor conjured by the idea of American troops in that conflict. It's set in a ravaged 1945 Germany that frequently looks like it might be hell, and the conflict it portrays is all about flesh, from the soldier who, covered in flames, shoots himself to end his pain to the smashed remnants of a corpse in the mud that the tanks roll all over like roadkill. It's a war-in-hell story about the four veterans and one newcomer manning a Sherman tank called "Fury," but it's also about the depths of the relationships they've built with one another in the midst of combat. And in that way, it's also another type of movie — the kind I've always thought of as "the male weepie."
Weepies, as in movies that are intended to make you cry, needn't be gendered. But they tend to be thought of as being for women — like Terms of Endearment, Titantic, The Notebook, The Fault In Our Stars, films that created instant sisterhoods of shared Kleenex packets in the dark of theaters around the world. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr's An Affair to Remember, one of the grand dames of the genre, was part of a running bit in Sleepless in Seattle — no female character could describe the plot without sobbing, but for the men, it was talking about war epic The Dirty Dozen that got the tears flowing.
That scene's played as a joke, and a good one, but Sleepless in Seattle was also on to something — there is a subset of movies that are just as deliberately crytastic by way of gruff, masculine stories. Sometimes they're about sports, or daddy issues, or both — see Field of Dreams — and other times they hide their tears behind formidable violence, like the terrific MMA sibling drama Warrior, or the matched macho historical pairing of Gladiator and Braveheart. These are Serious Topics, and so these movies don't get described in the same way someone might dismissively talk of Beaches, but they can be just as emotionally indulgent in their depictions of bonding and sacrifice. Just because a movie has a battle scene doesn't mean it's not a weepie at heart, and for the record, Fury has two massive ones — the first a thrillingly tense tank fight out on a field, the second a prolonged barrage at a crossroads where Fury has stalled out.
The second battle is Fury's big setpiece, an escalating sequence of shock and slaughter, but by the time it arrives, it's a bit of a letdown, because the film's true interest and impact isn't in the combat but in the characters, and how war and trauma has bound these men together. There's Ellison, green, unprepared, initially reluctant to kill. Then there's Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal), a weaselly, unpredictable guy from Arkansas; the boisterous Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña); and the devout Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who's settled on an unstable balance between religion and war.
Commanding them is U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt), a man deliberately shorn of identifying details from before the war. He's seemingly unflappable and tough as nails; he speaks German and sports an undercut that's both period-appropriate and the height of current fashion. As his name indicates, he treats his men with a paternal ease that sometimes means comforting them and other times putting a gun in their hands and forcing them to kill an unarmed German. When we see a hint of vulnerability from him, it's one he hides from his men, a quick panic attack he gasps out when no one can see him.
How men behave under prolonged stress is an interest of Ayer's, from his debut with the Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez bromance-gone-wrong Harsh Times to Jake Gyllenhaal and Peña's intriguing, found footage-y cop drama End of Watch, a movie I like more as time goes by. The people these Fury four have already become, and the person Ellison turns into over the course of the film, have been reforged and hardened by bloodshed. They've surrendered to the mindset needed to see the things they see and do the things they do, but they've done it together. It's a sort of mutual insanity — their sometimes ironic and sometimes absolutely sincere refrain is "Best job I ever had!" Between the barrages of gun and cannon fire, heavy enough to look like laser salvos, they indulge in arguments they've had before, Collier teasing Swan over whether or not Hitler is saved while Garcia goads the callow Ellison by telling him the girl he's admiring will sleep with him for a chocolate bar.
Fury, which is Ayer's best work to date, is a better movie for its tender, teary interior, for its unspoken affirmations of how much its soldiers actually love each other. Pitt may be the movie star, and may know how good he looks in silhouette, firing a tank gun, but it's the very good LaBeouf, watery-eyed and sad, who's a more accurate embodiment of the film's sentiments. For all its ferocious combat sequences and creative carnage, the stand-out sequence involves no fighting at all. It's a quieter interlude when Collier leads Ellison to an upscale apartment in a town they've just taken over, where he orders the women inside (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) to make them breakfast.
Collier and Ellison coax the women into letting their guard down and settle in for a breather, a simulacrum of civilization that's abruptly disrupted by the arrival of Garcia, Swan, and Travis, who are all pissed about being left out. The specter of violence, of rape, hangs over the interrupted meal, though their anger seems less aimed at the "playing house" with German ladies and more at the breaking of an unspoken contract — they were all supposed to be in this together, not softening, not coddling, not pretending, for even a second, that life is back to normal. Swan stares at Collier like a betrayed lover while the others unspool a disturbing story from the team's recent past, like they're opening a window to let the outside ugliness spill back in. The only softness allowed is, apparently, whatever they can spare for one another, and the scenes where it shows are genuinely heartrending, even in the midst of anti-tank fire. Fury may bristle with testosterone, but it's a tearjerker nonetheless, and a good one, a story about men trudging to the end of the world together.