LFF 2017: Foxtrot Review
Samuel Maoz's shapeshifting war drama is a deceptive beast. Jinking one way then the other, it aims to stay one step ahead, constantly keeping the viewer on the back foot playing catch-up. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Foxtrot ventures into surreality and black comedy all the while examining the grief experienced by an Israeli family. Broken down into three clearly defined acts, Maoz's film sets itself the tough challenge of bringing together tonal blends not traditionally seen as natural bedfellows and remains more successful seen individually rather than as a whole.
The first act opens in blunt, hard hitting fashion. Soldiers appear at the home of the Feldman's to deliver the news that their son, Jonathan, has been killed. As soon as the door opens, and before a word is spoken, his mother Davra (Sarah Adler) collapses to the floor and sedated by the visiting soldiers. His father, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), is left stunned and numb at hearing the news, staggering from room to room searching for comprehension. After clinically being informed of funeral details by another visiting soldier, there is a further knock at the door. More soldiers have arrived. They tell him that his Jonathan isn't dead after all. It was all a horrible mistake. He's alive and well on duty. Not that Michael will now believe a word he is being told as his anger only increases.
Then suddenly we're thrown a curve ball. The Feldman household is abandoned for the remote border outpost Jonathan (Yonatan Sharay) is guarding with his small group of men. Not only does the location change but the tone switches into a more consciously stylised, less clear cut narrative. Camels pass through the border barrier, as do Palestinians whose ID is checked inside their cars. Soldiers dance with their rifles in the dirt. Animation is used to tell old stories and recall the ever present shadow of the Holocaust. A tragedy occurs and is treated with fleeting indifference. War is absurd Maoz is telling us. And so on. This sudden jump may be bold in execution but it proves to be a confusing and unsatisfying tonal mess.
Conceptually Moaz's left-turn needs a firm hand and his grip on the steer is a little too locked on course for it to work. The third segment returns to the family home at a later date to examine the change in family dynamics. There is no preparation for the sudden launch into Jonathan's world and while it set ups an ironic punchline that creates meaning for the final act, its abrupt and stylised nature remains an acquired taste. Apart from one small moment of melodramatic crying in the first half hour there is no sign of the wry humour to come. When the death of Jonathan is announced as a terrible administrative mistake it raises awkward laughter rather than one that is comedically embellished.
Aside from winning at Venice, Foxtrot has confusingly received near universal critical acclaim. As a study on grief it fails to find the inner torment and sadness that spirals around the heart in moments of such despair. Criticism on the Israeli Defence Forces is similarly light and for those with no understanding of the political landscape Maoz's opaque approach barely leaves a scratch. As the angry and grieving father, Ashkenazi gives a fine performance, despite being robbed of the chance to delve deeper into the cavities required of the role. There are three of four films waiting to escape from Foxtrot but as a whole they fail to make one worth remembering.