Mark Reviews Movies

Foxtrot

FOXTROT

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Samuel Maoz

Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonathan Shiray, Shira Haas, Yehuda Almagor

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexual content including graphic images, and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 12/8/17 (limited); 3/2/18 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 7, 2017

The son is dead. That's what the Army says. The Army representatives don't even have to say much to the young man's mother. She sees their uniforms and hears her name, presented as a question of confirmation. That's when she falls to the floor.

That's how Foxtrot begins, with a pair of shots that we immediately comprehend, even though we've just met only one of the main characters, and a level of grief that's too much for this character to bear. The film proceeds as a chamber drama about how a family copes with this sudden, unexpected grief, and then it completely turns over on itself.

It's a film that contains about a handful of locations, only three different periods of time, and a structure that makes it feel as if it only contains four scenes. There's the announcement of the son's death and its fallout, a flashback to the son's time at an isolated checkpoint, a return to the apartment, and a final series of shots that take place on a road somewhere between the checkpoint and the apartment. Writer/director Samuel Maoz has made an intimate drama about grief and war, and the primary lesson of it is rather contradictory: that, no matter how close we may think we are to another person, there is no real way of knowing that person.

Daphna Feldman (Sarah Adler), the soldier's mother, has passed out and been injected with some drug to help her sleep, so Michael (Lior Ashkenazi, in an admirably subdued performance), the young man's father, takes the full brunt of the news: His son has died. The circumstances are kept silent, and that only makes it worse. The son has "fallen." That's the official, polite word that's used in such matters, so whether he was shot, stepped on a landmine, or suffered some accident is left to Michael's imagination. When Michael says that he wants to see his son's body, another Army official says that he can't. Is there even a body?

As an actual character, the son is essentially a nonentity for the film's first act. He exists as an idea, and his death is the only fact that matters. We watch Michael go through the Army's routine for counseling family members, listen to the funeral arrangements that are being prepared, and try to contact his younger daughter Alma (Shira Haas) to inform her that her big brother is dead.

In between the necessities, we get a picture of a dejected man, whose mother (played by Karin Ugowski) is suffering from dementia and doesn't recognize him—mistaking him for his older brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor), whose presence in the apartment becomes yet another burden to Michael. He's angry, too—mostly at himself, for reasons that doesn't speak. At one point, Michael head-butts the family dog, as it comes over to commiserate in the way that pets do, and at another, apparently realizing that the person whom he has to be mad at is himself, he holds his hand under some scalding water until his skin burns.

There are two major revelations over the course of the film that instantly change the story's tone. One occurs at the end of the first act, and the other comes to light near the start of the third. In between, though, is a lengthy sequence of the son, named Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray), at a border checkpoint at the edge of Israel.

Everything about the film shifts with the character's introduction and the change of location. Maoz's camera, which had been so close to its subjects in the first act, moves outward to capture the complete isolation of the checkpoint, on a mostly deserted road and surrounded by desert. Jonathan and his comrades pass the time by listening to music (Jonathan is prone to dancing), telling stories of their families, listening to the radio, and testing the angle at which their freighter container of a barracks is sinking into the mud.

It's absurdly comic in its subversion of the dull, drab routine, in which the gate is mostly an obstacle for wandering camels (They make up about half of the road's traffic), the mounted machine gun might as well be a prop, and the most excitement comes from waiting for a computer to display the word "Clear" for the handful of people who arrive. A visiting general (played by Aryeh Cherner), whose introduction comes by way of a close-up of his boots hesitating to step in the mud, assures the men that this is war, even though it doesn't look like it. There's a single scene of violence here, and it's the result of a mistake. By that point, Maoz and cinematographer Giora Bejach have moved their camera closer again. The military may literally bury this mishap, waiting for the rain to wash away any sign that it occurred, but Maoz wants us to see the faces of these people as it arrives and after it has happened.

Through this, we also learn a little more about Michael, from a story that Jonathan tells his fellow soldiers and a series of drawings that suggest the young man was paying more attention to his family than they thought. It's more than either Michael or Daphna can say about their son, who undergoes a significant ordeal and puts it to paper, only to have his parents see it as a metaphor for their own relationship. It would be simple to call Foxtrot cynical, but it's too achingly understanding of how one obvious loss can lead to a series of unexpected, unnoticed ones for that to be the case.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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