Writer/director David Ayer’s End of Watch was unquestionably the single most underrated movie of 2012. It was (and still is) a masterpiece, with off-the-chart performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, a fantastic script, and brilliant direction and cinematography. Seriously, look it up.

Alas, I fear Ayer’s latest effort, the World War II action/drama Fury, is destined for the same fate.

By no means is Fury easy to watch—the brutal physical and mental carnage of war is essentially its own character—but there’s no denying that it’s one of the year’s most gripping and flat-out excellent films.

Set in Germany in April 1945, Fury tells the story of fictional US Army Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) and his four fellow soldiers, all of whom spend the better part of the film crammed into the steel belly of a tank.

Reminiscent of other superb war films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket (the Vietnam-set second half, anyway), Fury does nothing to gloss over the horror of battle. From the opening scene, where Wardaddy dispatches with a German SS officer, to a few scenes later, when raw recruit Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is made to clean out some rather gnarly viscera left behind in the tank after a campaign, it’s all there. And that’s only two examples… from the first fifteen minutes.

Just as Ayer doesn’t pull any punches with the subject matter, the cast doesn’t hold back with their performances either. Pitt hasn’t been this good since the last time he donned Nazi-killing garb, in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. Lerman, who, to this point has been known primarily for the teen-driven Percy Jackson series, proves he has the chops to hang with the big boys, and the supporting cast, including Shia LaBeouf, End of Watch’s Pena, and Jon Bernthal, all turn in excellent, terrifically-nuanced performances, too.

Perfectly structured more as a series of vignettes than a seamless, flowing story, Fury takes us from the battlefield to camp to the siege of a town to the climax at an abandoned farm. And at each step along the way, each man’s characters is revealed a bit more. Ayer’s acumen is particularly on display smack in the middle of the film, when Wardaddy and Norman find a few hours’ respite in the town they just ambushed. It’s an expertly-crafted scene, and it’s precisely placed to give the audience a chance to exhale, before having to collectively resume holding its breath again.

Maybe Pitt’s name will help draw the crowds, or maybe the film’s arrival in the relatively uncompetitive no-man’s-land between summer blockbusters and winter Oscar hopefuls will help offset the subject matter. Or maybe the simple fact that Fury is among the best of the year is enough.

4.5/5 stars