A subtly paced, intricately designed, and powerfully moving depiction of loss, confusion, bureaucracy run amok, and guilt, Samuel Maoz’s Israeli drama Foxtrot covers a lot of thematic ground with great delicacy and emotional resonance. A triptych centered on a tumultuous period in the life of a middle class family, Foxtrot might have been too thematically and politically close to Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless to garner an Oscar nomination earlier this year, but it certainly belonged in the conversation as one of the best foreign language films put forward for contention.
In writer-director Maoz’s first movement, Michael and Daphna Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi, who can also be seen in this week’s vastly inferior 7 Days in Entebbe, and Sarah Adler) are woken one morning by military representatives bearing news that their adult son has “fallen” in the line of duty. Confused, terrified, and almost destroyed by grief, Michael cruelly, but somewhat understandably lashes out at everyone around him, while Daphna is so distraught that she has to be drugged into calming down.
The action shifts locations once Michael and Daphna learn that things might not be exactly as they seem. Maoz moves the story to the desolate military checkpoint where Michael and Daphna’s soldier son, Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray), has been stationed. Along with three other soldiers, Jonathan guards a flimsy traffic gate along an ill kept road with nothing surrounding them but muddy, uninhabitable terrain. They’re exhausted, and the shipping container they’re forced to live in has been rapidly sinking into the earth.
Following a life changing event for Jonathan and his fellow officers, Maoz shifts back to a considerable point in time following the first two acts to show how Michael and Daphna have been coping with the overwhelming events that have befallen them. They seem broken, but slightly more amicable than when the audience is first introduced to them, and here we get to see a bit more of the relationship they have with their daughter and Jonathan’s younger sister, Alma (Shira Haas).
In each of Foxtrot’s relatively stand alone segments, there are unforeseen twists that will contribute to Maoz’s greater whole. Almost none of them are predictable, and all of them are believable, making the tragedy at the heart of Foxtrot a lot more potent than a singular-minded look at grief with a linear plot might have handled things. Maoz has adopted a unique format of storytelling to get from the beginning to the end, and it’s only in the film’s final scene – a brilliant moment of coal black comedy – that it all finally clicks together. But the feeling of watching Maoz, his cast, and crew struggle with putting the events together is part of the overall point of the film.
Making sense of the sudden loss of a loved one – especially someone as young as Jonathan – is almost impossible in the moment, even for a self-admitted atheist like Michael. Foxtrot portrays this emotional whiplash in a purposefully disorienting and confusing manner. The viewer knows as much as Michael does, and even after spending a considerable amount of time with Jonathan, the answers are still maddeningly out of reach. In some respects, it’s a plot that takes cues from classic satire. No one knows anything for certain, but everyone tries to establish themselves as the smartest person in the room. In another form, Foxtrot could have been an outright comedy, but Maoz keeps his darkened funny bone in check for the most part. Grief is surreal, and Maoz has captured that untenable feeling better than many filmmakers have tried to tackle similar subject matter.
In addition to a rigorously thought out narrative that keeps key character details hidden from viewers until the last possible moment, Maoz’s visual style is equally accomplished and intricate, varying between the three segments and what they’re trying to convey. A majority of the first third finds cinematographer Giora Bejach focusing intently on Ashkenazi’s face in close-ups, a daunting gambit that the accomplished actor rises to meet expertly. In the middle portion, Maoz mounts cheekier visuals to show the futility of Jonathan’s mission. The road being protected is as useless as the protection being offered. These soldiers likely couldn’t stop anything substantial if they tried, and all you need to know about what the Israeli military thinks of them can be gleaned from an overhead shot that dwells on four unappetizing cans of potted meat heating up over a fire. The final segment is more relaxed and intimate, told mostly in two-shots of Ashkenazi and Adler, with the lights dimmed around them to a point where it looks like they’re the only players on a deep, darkened stage with no audience to play to. If each story has a different set of goals that Maoz wants to accomplish, Foxtrot makes this into a reality through the director’s keen visual sensibilities.
Foxtrot is a lot to process in a single sitting, but everything sticks like a sharpened sword to the gut. In only his second fictional feature, Maoz has reaches emotional and artistic heights that some auteurs spend their entire careers chasing after. It’s an almost impossible act to follow, but I can’t wait to see what he attempts next.
Foxtrot opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, March 16, 2018. It expands to Vancouver and Montreal on March 23 and to additional Canadian cities throughout the winter and spring.
Check out the trailer for Foxtrot: