Tanks for the memories: Brad Pitt and crew in Fury, a misfiring mix of horror and schmaltz
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Belly of the beast: Brad Pitt’s new war movie veers from horror to schmaltz

For every stab at dirty realism in Fury, there is a sanitising touch to make everything clean again.

Fury (15)
dir: David Ayer

The move towards violent realism in war movies has been a gradual process, with advances represented by the likes of Soldier Blue (1970), about the US cavalry’s savage campaign against Native Americans, and Come and See (1985), set during the Nazi occupation of Belorussia. The graphic brutality of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) was confined mainly to its opening half-hour and had the unusual effect of giving a free pass to the clichés and sentimentality in the rest of the film. It was as if Spielberg was saying that we could have our comforting war movie only if we first endured, and kept in mind, the ugly, unvarnished version.

Fury seems initially to be striving for much the same effect. In the opening moments, a Nazi officer receives a knife in the eye and a broken neck. Both are gifts from Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), the commander of a Sherman tank rolling through Germany in the final months of the Second World War, wreaking havoc and rapidly running out of ammo (“Fury” is the word daubed on the tank’s gun barrel).

Squashed inside that creaking tin can are the four grunts under Wardaddy’s watch. One is fixing a mechanical problem; another pees in a bucket. The third, who wears a stunned expression, is holding hands with the fourth. The fourth has recently been relieved of his head.

That was the driver. When they reach camp, the men pick up his replacement, Norman (Logan Lerman), who looks barely old enough to be in charge of a pogo stick. If Norman is searching for a father figure, then he is in the right film, although what he gets is tough love. His first challenge is to shoot a cowering German prisoner. Wardaddy, who has proposed this execution, taunts Norman with slaps to the face and head that verge on the affectionate (he even grabs him in a terrible embrace) without losing their viciousness.

David Ayer (who wrote Training Day and wrote and directed End of Watch) keeps emphasising Wardaddy’s amoral edge, only to pull back and reassure us that he’s not that bad. “He may be crazier than a shithouse rat but I won’t fight with anyone else,” says Gordo (Michael Peña), practically misting up. Such mixed messages are confusing. It’s like being slapped in the face and then given a cuddle. This turns out to be Ayer’s philosophy of film-making.

For every stab at dirty realism in Fury, there is a sanitising touch to make everything clean again. It’s odd that so much research has gone into the logistics of working and living inside a tank (the five main cast members spent a night in there as part of their preparation) without much sense of confinement or claustrophobia reaching the screen. There was more clammy tension in two minutes of Lebanon, the gripping 2009 film set entirely inside an Israeli tank, than there is in the whole of Fury. Ayer lets too much fresh air into his movie: he keeps making pit stops for a plot-point or a character beat, a formative sexual experience here or a “You know what? You’re OK, kid!” speech there.

He has gone to some lengths to produce images that are both original and casually gruesome. It is common when starting a new job to find something left behind by the previous incumbent, but in Norman’s case it isn’t a cuddly toy that he discovers in his vacated workspace: it’s the skin from his predecessor’s face. There’s the slap again. The cuddle comes from Steven Price’s exalted score. Ayer is not the first director to undermine his own film yet it seems plain perverse for the images to tell us war is hell while the music says: “There, there.”

Fury is proof that a film can be technically accurate and dramatically bogus, well made but also not much cop. Sometimes it can be good and bad in the same scene. When the platoon storms a German town, Wardaddy and his men burst into an apartment where they are provided with food. Conversation gives way to a monologue that aspires to the eloquence of the USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws written by John Milius and delivered by Robert Shaw. Needless to say, it falls far short.

But, a few minutes earlier, Ayer has done something quite wonderful: he has staged a moment in which Wardaddy takes off his shirt to shave, revealing a back covered with scars from severe burns. It’s a clever touch, a backstory in both senses of the term yet without a word spoken. It hardly even matters that there are only two likely explanations for those burns: either Wardaddy was trapped in some sort of tank fire or Warmummy ironed his shirt without first removing it from his back. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution