Grief is an inescapable condition, and sorrow a never-ending facet of life, in Foxtrot. As such, the film—Israel’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar—arrives at a depressingly timely moment, with President Donald Trump igniting another round of Middle East discord via his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Far more accomplished than his prior fictional effort, 2009’s life-inside-a-wartime tank saga Lebanon, writer/director Samuel Maoz’s drama is a haunting meditation on pain, and the inability to truly break free from its grasp—a despondent perspective conveyed by this wrenching story of a family ravaged by both their own past offenses and the cruel hand of fate.
Foxtrot is encased in a fatalistic shroud, and the source of that doom is on high, as Maoz’s protracted overhead camera shots assume the POV of a silent, indifferent God. If, as suggested, He’s watching some of his people as they grapple with circumstances almost too awful to bear, He certainly shows no inclination to intervene, thus leaving them to cope with heavy hearts and guilty consciences on their own. It’s an onerous task, and one set before architect Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Daphna (Sarah Adler) when, while at their Tel Aviv home, they’re visited by two soldiers. Upon opening the door to greet these men, Daphna faints and falls into convulsions, leaving Michael stranded alone in a distant doorway, a look of stunned horror on his face. As they both invariably know, this military appearance can mean only one thing: their soldier son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) has been killed in the line of duty.
In a sustained close-up of agonized numbness, Michael listens as the men explain the protocol demanded by the situation, including the participation of a funeral officer to arrange services, and Michael’s need to keep drinking water to stay hydrated—a chore for which they set an hourly alarm on his phone. All the while, Michael’s vacant look conveys the dawning abyss opening up before his very eyes. Ashkenazi expresses the mournful panic and hollow rage beginning to flower in Michael’s head and heart with an open-faced rawness that’s heartbreaking.
And what follows is ugliness of a varied sort, from Michael viciously kicking his dog (only to later silently apologize), to conversations with his gratingly helpful brother (Yehuda Almagor) and memory-deficient mother (Karin Ugowski), to a sit-down with the aforementioned funeral specialist, who—not capable of reading the individual with whom he’s speaking—suggests that Michael do something upbeat at the ceremony, like have someone read a poem or play some guitar.
Shock turns to sadness, and next to rage when [minor spoilers follow] the soldiers return to inform the Feldmans that Jonathan is, in fact, not dead—it was another soldier with the same name who actually perished. Given that he already suspected something was amiss after being denied the chance to see his son’s body, this news infuriates Michael, despite Daphna’s best attempts to soothe him. Then, no sooner has this volatile incident subsided than Foxtrot cuts to the remote middle-of-nowhere checkpoint being manned by Jonathan and his three comrades. It’s a desolate locale, where a spotlight sits in a watchtower, radio equipment is housed in a broken-down van decorated with an illustrated profile of a beautiful woman, and the roadblock is a single gate raised mainly to allow the back-and-forth passage of a camel. Across a disgusting pond sits a large metal container that serves as the quartet’s home, although even more troublesome than the grimy nature of these accommodations is the fact that, as a ball rolling across their floor indicates, their residence is tilting—and sinking—into the ground.
If Michael and Daphna are wracked with heartache born from loss (and confusion, and perceived deception), Jonathan and his comrades are burdened by a more existential sort of malaise. Theirs is a dreamlike ennui wrought from being marooned in a wasteland carrying out a largely pointless assignment and otherwise spending time listening to heavy metal, eating potted meat (boiled, disgustingly, on makeshift burners), and, for Jonathan, scribbling illustrations in a notebook. One of those drawings, of a buxom blonde sexpot with black Xs taped over her nipples, leads to a story from Jonathan about a Hebrew bible held onto by his grandmother during the Holocaust, and his father Michael’s decision to trade that precious family heirloom—which his mom intended to pass onto him when he became a soldier—for a porno mag featuring a woman similar to the one Jonathan has sketched.
That tale of inheritance, betrayal and regret ends, deliberately, without mention of how Michael’s mother felt about his deed. Yet a later animated sequence corrects that omission, while also using a fantastical flourish—Michael’s face forever emblazoned with the beauty’s nipple-covering black X—to tap into the shame and anguish lurking just beneath Michael’s, and everyone else’s, surface. When a group of untested Israeli soldiers accidentally kill a group of innocent Palestinians at a checkpoint—and then their IDF superior covers it up—Maoz handles that moral descent with aplomb, using oppressive silence and precisely calibrated camerawork to create an atmosphere of bleak foreboding (the sequence led to the film being labeled “anti-Israel” by Israel’s controversial culture minister Miri Regev). Even when levity briefly arrives in a closing sequence between Michael and Daphna—set months later—the scars of the past and the wounds of the present feel like one and the same: bloody, distressing, and permanent.
As a study of grief, Foxtrot is an arduous cinematic experience, its grimness infesting every inch of its precisely manicured frame—including whenever a painting of a black vortex-like design (evoking a void from which one might never escape) is spied in the Feldmans’ home. Nonetheless, even in the face of so much misery, Maoz’s film finds hope, however modest and fleeting, in the notion that, if life is akin to a foxtrot dance—i.e. always returning people to the place they began—the despondent and estranged might still find solace from the understanding that such corrosive cycles can be broken by a measure of shared compassion. And, perhaps also, by taking a few tokes from a hard-earned (and well-rolled) joint.