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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem