Movie review: Foxtrot
Samuel Maoz takes the rituals of death notification into desolate territory as he mines internal and external conflicts within the Israeli psyche in his absurdist drama Foxtrot
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonatan Shiray
Directed by: Samuel Maoz
Running time: 1hr 48 mins
By Katherine Monk
The death of a soldier is a universal sorrow. Yet there is a uniquely Israeli sensibility in Samuel Maoz’s take on a grieving family. It doesn’t come with all the flag-draped patriotism that accompanies most American treatments that ritualize noble sacrifice. Instead, Foxtrot dances into the absurd as it pushes us into a shipping container, slowly sinking in the middle of the desert.
Irony is everywhere. The characters, however, are nowhere. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sara Adler) Feldman are In a state of shock from the moment we meet them. They open the door in the opening scene and see three soldiers in uniform. Daphna passes out. Michael sits and listens to the people before him, unable to move.
They know it’s about their son Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), a kid performing his military service somewhere so remote, he can’t be reached. Cut to a rusty van painted with a pinup, a makeshift machine-gun nest, and a dinky red gate wrapped in barbed wire standing in the middle of a deserted road.
A camel approaches. The gate is raised by a bored soldier. The camel passes. This is the daily routine for the men posted to a checkpoint somewhere sandy. Every day, they take turns manning the roadblock. Every night, they return to the shipping container that doubles as their barracks and fall asleep looking at the beach scene wallpapered inside.
The container is listing. To test its progress, they roll a can of rations from one end of the bigger can to the other running a stopwatch. It’s just one of the many devices Maoz uses to stretch out the suspense. We know something is going to happen, we just don’t know what, or how.
The fact he makes us wait so long for things to happen is part of the film’s peculiar clockwork. We move in square steps around the dramatic beats, moving in a little closer to the characters with each approach of the hips — only to step apart on the next beat. Maoz plays out the metaphor in literal terms, actually showing us a character foxtrotting with his rifle.
The fact he makes us wait so long for things to happen is part of the film’s peculiar clockwork. We move in square steps around the dramatic beats, moving in a little closer to the characters with each approach of the hips — only to step apart on the next beat.
He didn’t really need to do this. Other films in the same absurdist vein, such as the brilliant No Man’s Land, didn’t need to emphasize the irony. But it looks cool. It also exaggerates the tone to something approaching comic-bookish. Maoz shows us that, too, in the form of drawings from Jonathan’s notebook — boyish black and white renderings of his everyday sights, horrors and the mundane pressed together by chance and a creative eye.
The movie often feels as contrived and self-conscious as its central character, Michael (Ashkenazi), an architect who no longer believes in institutions and rages against the void by keeping it all inside. Michael keeps trying to assert his will, believing it will be for the best, without knowing what games fate may be playing.
Maoz refuses emotional closure or moral justifications. The acts of war perpetrated before us are never directly addressed. As a result, so much of Foxtrot feels like a dangling thread — a cruel jest of fate without meaning. Yet, thanks to the restrained performance from Ashkenazi, who lets discomfort crackle across his stoic features like breaking glass, we can feel the endless conflict playing out within his soul, and across the rest of this desolate landscape. It’s all relentlessly bleak, but that seems to be Maoz’s point: Without real change, every generation will sacrifice the next, either on purpose — or completely by accident.
Opens Vancity Friday.
Main photo: Left to right: Gefen Barkai as Squad Commander. Shaul Amir as Soldier with Headphones. Dekel Adin as Soldier Rolling Cans and Yonatan Shiray as Jonathan. Photo by Giora Bejach, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
THE EX-PRESS, March 22, 2018