What is Foxtrot?
Structurally, this thing is a marvel: Foxtrot does the foxtrot, as main character Joseph explains to his captive audience. 3 steps, and you return to the same place – or, rather, 3 very different acts bookended by the same scene. A lot of the surprises and finesse of the movie come from the way in which director Samuel Maoz deftly switches tones and styles (not to mention plot) to manoeuvre us around his twisted chess board; referencing legendary film moments and crafting something completely unique at the same time.
The first strand presents itself as a devastating tale of grief, with shades of Lynch. When the soldiers arrive at the Feldman’s’ door, we already know what’s happened: no words need be spoken. Maoz’s camera revolves above his characters on a Twin Peaks-esque chessboard floor – spinning and tessellating through psychological space as the parents of X spiral into an oblivion that threatens to eat them alive. It’s an emotional, powerful piece of work that could have formed the bulk of the movie, but which ends unexpectedly in a masterfully Hitchcockian twist.
It’s nigh-on wordless, and possessed of an ethereal beauty that begs to be seen on the big screen
This is followed by a trippy, Anderson-esque voyage into a surrealist nightmare of epic proportions. We turn to the Foxtrot unit, a small group of soldiers who guard a road border in a desert-like wilderness. Life’s boring – the biggest threat to safety being a lone camel which traverses the long, barren roads. The checkpoint, with all its vintage equipment, posters, and cultural debris feels like a forgotten relic from the 1950s; and the men who inhabit it, slowly sinking into the mud, have become distanced from temporal reality: a scenario outside of space-time. It’s nigh-on wordless, and possessed of an ethereal beauty that begs to be seen on the big screen. This is a film about the pointlessness and banality in war: there’s no Private Ryan gore, no explosions, no glossy Dunkirk CGI – there’s just anticipation and boredom, regret and loss.
The final portion of Foxtrot returns to the Feldman house for a concluding act that’s alternately tragic, hilarious, and surprising in equal measure. For a segment filled with more subtle glances and actions rather than on-the-nose dialogue, it’s compelling and believable stuff: a rollercoaster of emotion, regret, and hope that perfectly encapsulates all we’ve seen so far in the film.
It’s a film that goes to great lengths to highlight everything wrong with a damaged culture
But it’s the unifying factors and themes that run through each of these portions that make Foxtrot endlessly exciting as a formal exercise. Not just the ‘main’ story, which I have tried to obscure, but the methodically brutal dissection of Israeli life that would seem to be Maoz’s main concern. The constant threat of conflict, combined with the generational baggage of national service, not to mention the spectre of the Holocaust that hangs over everything, gives layered meaning to the images presented onscreen, and paints a portrait of a society in retrograde.
Maoz has created something totally unique and horrifically compelling here
Despite being condemned by the Israeli Minister for Culture, the most surprising (and disappointing) thing I found about Foxtrot was its unwillingness to condemn the Israeli armed forces for anything more than their brutality. It’s a film that goes to great lengths to highlight everything wrong with a damaged culture, yet one that sidesteps the main issue – a problem that Maoz’s previous film, the Golden Lion winning Lebanon, faced criticism for upon release.
In the larger scheme of things, this doesn’t take away from the fact that Foxtrot is an absolute triumph, and a hallucinatory triptych of the horrors of war. Maoz has created something totally unique and horrifically compelling here: a film about the banality and pointlessness of death, whilst simultaneously being a rich cultural study of the Israeli people. One of the finest war films I have ever seen: in its tragically poignant final frames, the enraptured audience didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Image: Sony Pictures Classics