Those seeking a traditional drama about how a perpetual state of warfare corrupts and destroys the lives of soldiers, their families and innocent civilians might be turned off by the oppressively dry and languid Foxtrot. Writer/director Samuel Maoz splits his sometimes frustrating but ultimately rewarding Israeli drama about a couple dealing with their immediate grief after their son’s death in combat—and the almost inevitably tragic aftermath that follows—into three distinct chapters. It resembles an anthology feature that happens to contain intersecting characters and thin plot tissue.
The first chapter follows the well-put-together architect Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) processing his grief right after finding out that his son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) has died. Such an instant gut punch is of course ripe for heart wrenching melodrama, but Moaz shows considerable and commendable restraint as he focuses on the procedural aspects of how such terrible news is delivered and processed by the military. The soldiers who first talk to Michael treat grief as a physical ailment, giving him tips on maintaining his health while going through a process no parent should be asked to endure. They matter-of-factly set an alarm for him to drink water every hour, educate him on how to keep his anxiety under control in order to calmly discuss the details of the burial ceremony. As he’s expected, he goes over the itemized details of the burial with the military rabbi (Itamar Rotschild), who reminds him that as men, they are not expected to indulge in emotional outbursts. During these briefings, Maoz stays almost entirely on Michael’s face, silently processing his anger and sadness. Michael’s suppressed emotions eventually turn into self-mutilation.
We hear the soldiers go through the procedural details with emotional detachment, as if they’ve become desensitized to it: No shortage of informing families of tragic deaths in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of Israel’s most renowned actors, Ashkenazi takes on the unenviable task of projecting a significant amount of pain, confusion and anger through only restrained facial expressions, communicating countless melodramas worth of explosive grief through a simple look. By employing a matter-of-fact approach to the tragedy, like a more compassionate Michael Haneke, Moaz manages to tap into the underlying self-destruction that ripples from the son’s death into the father.
After a shocking revelation about Jonathan, Moaz unceremoniously cuts to the film’s second chapter, a slow and quiet examination of the day-to-day ennui that envelops the existence of four border patrolmen in the middle of a road so desolate it serves mostly as a crossing point for lone camels. Moaz lulls us into the calm before the imminent storm, as these fresh-faced late teens fill the time in typical young male fashion: Telling crude stories about porn magazines and discussing the size of Roger Rabbit’s penis (a scene that serves up some well-earned levity). He splits a military existence in an active war zone into two extremes: crippling boredom as time stands still, and then split-second decisions resulting in horrific violence that will amount to destruction and grief. When the second part comes, it’s handled ruthlessly and efficiently. Any movie that manages to turn a simple shot of a hole in the ground into a heartbreaking moment of self-reflection must be doing something right.
In the third chapter, we return to Michael’s grieving family. Another dreadful plot twist has taken place, yet Moaz sidesteps the more-than-likely emotionally charged scene of its revelation in order to focus on another quiet moment, in whcih Michael and his wife Daphna (Sarah Adler) deal with how their relationship will be affected during the tragedy’s aftermath. By switching the focus from father to mother, Moaz finally allows for a more open emotional expression of the sadness that surrounds the family, including a bittersweet final shot that may imply the possibility of some inner peace. With its unflinching and painstaking execution of such grim subject matter, Foxtrot is certainly not an easy watch, but an ultimately rewarding one.
Director: Samuel Maoz
Written by: Samuel Maoz
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonaton Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor, Itamar Rothschild
Release Date: April 6, 2018