Sundance: ‘Foxtrot’ unbridled joy and harrowing fear

Sunday, January 28, 2018 - 5:26pm

In “Lebanon,” Israeli director Samuel Maoz experimented with confinement, restricting the entire film to activity within a single tank. “Foxtrot,” his latest film, which played last September at the Venice Film Festival and won its Grand Jury Prize, explores a different kind of confinement. A tragedy in three acts, “Foxtrot” is a master class in extracting tender feelings from audiences, then stomping on the last remaining hope one might have. It’s absolutely devastating.

It would be cruel to be clued any plot details, so I’ll try to be as vague as possible. “Foxtrot,” whose three acts each feature a single mistake and the ripples that emanate from it, begins with sad news: When two Israeli soldiers knock on the door of Michael (Lior Ashkenazi, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”) and Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler, “Tsili”), Daphna collapses in shock, before even hearing that her son, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray, “A Tale of Love and Darkness”) has been killed in the line of duty. Michael, too, becomes nearly catatonic; he’s unresponsive and lashes out at the family dog when it comes to comfort him. He’s just broken inside. And we, thanks to Maoz’s excellent camerawork, are right there with him. Repeatedly filmed in tight a close-up, it’s impossible to avoid Michael’s anguish and, as uncomfortable as those moments are, it’s an intrepid effort in empathy that strikes one as almost impossibly hopeful. At the same time, a number of birds-eye shots reveal his confinement and his entrapment, forced to confront his grief with no forewarning.

In the second act, we witness Jonathan in action, and it’s a mixture of unbridled joy and harrowing fear. The first mention of the film’s title comes when a fellow soldier explains that the foxtrot is actually a dance and, in a musical interlude, dances with explosive energy, in stark contrast to when the soldiers must actually do their job, which is to monitor a supply route, checking to make sure everyone who passes through will not pose a danger to them or to the country. How often are we lucky enough to experience such a cavalcade of raw emotion, and wildly variant emotions at that? That we may move from grooving in our seats, to laughing at passing camels, to white knuckling as a car is slowly and methodically examined in the dead of night is a testament to Maoz’s careful and humane direction.

The last act returns to Michael and Daphna, confronting their grief. Though they remain more distant than before, their melancholic reunion is both quietly heartbreaking and somewhat uplifting. Maoz’s screenplay’s slight vagueness is resolved at the film’s conclusion, in a devastating shot, but the preceding half hour or so can be obfuscated by lingering questions left unresolved. It’s a shame, because after the film’s middle third, which is some of the most staggeringly intoxicating filmmaking I’ve ever seen, the film doesn’t quite match itself. 

In an interview with Film Comment, Maoz described the film as an emotional journey: first act as shock, the second as hypnotization and the third as being moving. It’s no stretch that Maoz has found success in his latest film. As allegedly controversial as it may be in its home country, “Foxtrot” is a film that undoubtedly shocks, hypnotizes and moves us. It’s definitely worth seeking out.

NodeBox: 

“Foxtrot”

Directed by Samuel Maoz

Sony Pictures Classic

Sundance Film Festival 2018