‘Foxtrot’ Film Review: Israel’s Oscar Entry Doesn’t Dance Around the Complexities of War

A mix of styles and tones makes for a provocative and heartbreaking tale about people in a seemingly never-ending state of crisis

Last Updated: February 28, 2018 @ 8:03 AM

Samuel Maoz’s Israeli drama “Foxtrot” is willfully confusing, emotionally chaotic, and occasionally anarchic. It makes complete sense from one angle, but no sense at all from another. In other words, it reflects its subject perfectly.

As the movie opens, Michael Feldmann (Israeli superstar Lior Ashkenazi, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”) has just learned that his soldier son was killed on duty. But is Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) actually dead? No. Maybe. Yes?

Maoz (“Lebanon”) isn’t going to make this easy for anyone. He shoots the story in three uncomfortably interconnected acts, with multiple perspectives and styles, keeping us constantly on edge and off-balance.

In the first segment, the Feldmanns are both visually and literally alienated, with Michael numbly uncomprehending as military officers handle a familiar procedure with ruthless efficiency. As soon as they arrive, they have news (of the death), information (it was a noble sacrifice) and orders (funeral arrangements are already being prepared; parents just need to show up, and perhaps bring an amusing anecdote to share).

Michael’s wife, Daphna (a wonderful Sarah Adler, “Marie Antoinette”), is bureaucratically tranquilized before she can get hysterical, a response the officers automatically expect and want to avoid. But it’s Michael who eventually loses control, infuriated by the invasive, pat condescension of everyone around him.

His response is, of course, utterly reasonable under the circumstances. And yet everyone around him calls him emotional, crazy, psychotic. Daphna urges him to calm down; the officers are disgusted by his grief-driven rage. And they are especially infuriated when he insists that Jonathan — or his body? — be returned home, immediately. He has every right to want to see his son, doesn’t he? Does he?

Meanwhile, it seems that Jonathan is actually stuck in a quiet and remote border area, patrolling his station. It’s a life of endless monotony. And also endless tension, where nothing happens and absolutely everything happens.

He and his fellow soldiers — who are kids, really — live in a rotting shipping container, a sinking (and heavy-handed) symbol of the war they’re fighting. They sit around waiting for Palestinian cars to come by, so they can check IDs and let strangers pass on their way. They play video games, and talk about centerfolds, and make terrible, tragic mistakes with the potential to ruin many lives.

Finally (or not, exactly) we return to Michael and Daphna. They are alternately bonded and isolated by sorrow, in a manner that feels both unexpected and inevitable. This scene is intentionally intimate in a way the others weren’t, giving both actors a beautiful, heartbreaking showcase. (The film swept the Israeli Oscars, and is the country’s submission for a Best Foreign Language Academy Award.)

Any one of Maoz’s styles could have made for a strong film. But the combination of straightforward realism, deadpan surrealism, historical horror and domestic tragedy is harrowingly impactful. It’s as if Maoz realized that a single, sustained tone couldn’t possibly do justice to the vastness of the subject.

Death is everywhere in “Foxtrot”: it’s in the blood of the young, the old, the Israelis, the Palestinians. They talk about it, live with it, know it, own it. It’s terrible to see. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is also humor and love, laughter and dancing. And most of all, there is a burning wish to understand the incomprehensible. To make sense of so much pain and guilt and anger and resentment, when the end result is so clearly devastating for everyone.

Maoz doesn’t pretend to have those answers. But he and his outstanding cast make it impossible to look away from the questions.