The New York Film Festival is winding down this weekend with its closing film, Birdman tomorrow. The AFI Fest is early next month. Venice, Toronto and Telluride have come and gone. But one film, rumored to be an Oscar contender and opening next week, has decided to take another route and skip that circuit where so many awards hopefuls show up. Rather than let “the air out of the bag” at a film festival as one source told me, Fury will be released by Sony Pictures on October 17. Writer/director David Ayer’s fierce and intense World War II story starring Brad Pitt as a battle-wise army sergeant commanding a Sherman Tank and its crew at war’s end, in my opinion, deserves to be a powerful new contender, not just for Picture and categories like Cinematography, Editing and Sound where these kinds of films generally show up, but also for Logan Lerman’s strong supporting turn as a rookie soldier suddenly thrust into a situation he is ill-prepared for, and Brad Pitt, giving perhaps the performance of his career to date as that sergeant aka ‘Wardaddy’. The Best Actor race is impossibly crowded but Pitt, so convincing in quite a risky role that could be taken for granted in other hands, turns it into something unforgettable. It’s also doubly impressive since he has to make you forget the Nazi hunter he played to wildly different results in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. This is not remotely that guy, but a real tough and gritty portrait of a man thrust into and then shaped by war.
Fury also marks the true directorial emergence of Ayer, if there was ever any doubt after his stunning 2012 End Of Watch which starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as a couple of police officers on the beat of the gang infested mean streets of L.A. That one was a war movie of a different sort but you can see the stamp of Ayer on both films which are action-filled but focus on the human element not often seen in these genres. To be sure, like End Of Watch, it’s got strong scenes of intense violence that are tough to see, but war is hell and Ayer does not sugarcoat it. Films outside the genre, such as Sam Peckinpah’s western classic The Wild Bunch, seem to have had an influence here in some ways. Pena, by the way, is also in Fury as part of a great ensemble cast (SAG, are you listening?) that also includes Shia LeBeouf , Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs and Scott Eastwood. The acting all around is flawless and though the WWII genre is overworked, Fury is set in a tank and I can’t remember another major American-set war picture that focused on that aspect in this way. To say it is logistically challenging is an understatement, but the filmmaking achievement is prodigious .
Originally the film was going to be released in mid-November but that strategy changed. “When you’ve got a movie like this we felt we could really stand out in October. Why be in a hammock between Interstellar and Hunger Games ? We weren’t moving back, we’re moving up,” producer Bill Block, whose QED International was the prime force behind the film, told me in a phone conversation shortly after I saw the film at a small screening on the Sony lot over two weeks ago. The film, which topped out somewhere close to $85 million to make (UPDATE: Other sources put the actual cost much lower), was independently produced as so many films are today and financiers in China, Japan and the Middle East among others stepped up to the plate. Sony won the U.S. distribution rights and Block said they have also stepped up to the plate in a big way in terms of support. This is by far QED’s biggest gamble to date. I think the film’s awards prospects could be tied, certainly enhanced, if it turns out to be a commercial hit. I know that Sony is looking for that perfect storm and this is the studio’s one big hope for Oscar attention this year (outside of Sony Pictures Classics stable of contenders of course) and they have hired a top awards consultant to help the cause. The studio had embargoed talk and reviews of the film until today, just a week before opening, hoping not to spill all the beans too soon and just let the movie be discovered. It will be interesting to see the kind of impact it will make. For my money it’s right up there with many war-related classics that have set the Academy on fire in the recent past like Platoon and Saving Private Ryan. Early trade reviews are mixed, but I am not sure they all get it. This film has a unique and distinctive feel all its own. My own Deadline video review will run next week to elaborate on that. Oscar has a bit of a love affair with war movies when they are done well, and this one is done very well. It will be interesting to see how it plays out this season.