It's the end of World War II, and U.S. soldiers are deep into German territory. A platoon, led by Sgt. Wardaddy Collier (Brad Pitt), battles the enemy from the confines of their eponymous tank. Look at their faces: these men have lost years to this war. Working the tank is a veritable rogue's gallery: religious gunner Bible (Shia LaBeouf); roughneck mechanic Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal); and Gordo (Michael Peña), the driver. At the start of the film, they've just lost their assistant driver. His replacement is a greenhorn, Norman (Logan Lerman). He has been in the military for only eight weeks, and you can tell. 

As Wardaddy is fond of saying, the purpose these men serve is to “kill Krauts.” Norman, who was a clerk typist when he was drafted, is a pacifist, but that does not last long. In a particularly harrowing scene, Wardaddy forces Norman to confront his hangup with violence by shooting an unarmed German soldier in the back. The experience tears away at both men, indicating the dehumanization that is inherent to a life in the military. No one walks away unscathed from this war, least of all Wardaddy, who puts up a fierce front for his men but internally is suffering.

We don’t get a lot of backstory about these men. Writer-director David Ayer offers them as they are, and does not shy away from depicting them as less than heroic. Gordo recounts their traumatic experience storming the beach at Normandy, where they did not do much fighting, but were instead responsible for the slaughter of wounded horses. “It was a hot summer that year,” he says elliptically. Bible’s constant hangdog look betrays an internal spiritual conflict between his faith and his job as a killer. Coon-Ass sneers and taunts Norman, but backs down when Wardaddy gives him the order. The only history that matters here is the men’s shared experiences on the battlefield.

It is in building these relationships between the characters that Ayer succeeds most. His obsessions are with men of violence who have to rely on each other to get through the day. His best film so far is 2012’s End of Watch, where the central relationship between Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal is enough to overcome narrative concerns and queasy racism. The rapport between the actors in this film feels lived in and weathered, not unlike the tank that protects them. Despite the constant presence of death, you can see how a young man like Norman could eventually fall in with these people.

Ayer’s film is darkly beautiful, with a desaturated color palette that is characterized by drab browns and grays. The film alternates between the misty landscapes of rural Germany and the claustrophobic interior of the tank. I was reminded of Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot while watching the film, because the interior shots felt as though they were shrinking as time went on, as if death were slowly closing in on the men. It is a muddy, dirty film, and so when the narrative takes a pause to allow a brief moment of happiness for Norman and a young woman, Ayer’s use of color is all the more welcome.

Ayer also presents the action clearly in the battle scenes, of which there are many. The best involves two tanks dueling with each other, and the suspense is powerful. You never feel as though any of the main cast is truly safe, because death is so prevalent. In what may have been an unintentional nod to Star Wars, Ayer color codes the bullet streaks from the Americans and the Germans—red and green, respectively—providing a welcome addition of clarity to what otherwise would have been a jumble.

The events of the film, though set during the final days of WWII, do not adhere specifically to any actual battles. This was a risky move, because war films risk straying into exploitation territory if they are not grounded in fact. The presence of Oscar-winning, Gravity composer Steven Price’s score elevates the film into operatic territory, as does Ayer’s presentation of the men as primarily character types, rather than flesh and blood human beings. I mean this as a compliment. Although Fury has little value as a historical document, it still manages to feel profound. Its emotional power compensates for its lack of depth.

The performances are integral to the impact of the film, and they are excellent across the board. LaBeouf is particularly good, stripping away the smugness that characterizes his work in other films. He feels like he has finally become a man, and his drooping mustache feels appropriate to his character. Pitt is well cast as the leader, because his natural charisma and strong presence convey everything that is required of his character without resorting to speechifying. Peña is wonderful as always. Lerman, whose character could very well be ported over from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is the heart of the film, and he carries that weight very well. Even Bernthal, who favors caricature over character in his other work, reveals surprising depth here.

Fury is a solid film about war and the toll it takes on humanity. It flirts with portentousness occasionally, but wins back our respect with its authentically grim depiction of men standing on the edge of the abyss.