This review comes courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, from whom I received a screener. I was not paid or compensated for this review in any way.
By looking at the poster for Foxtrot, you might draw a few conclusions on the subject, such as life in the midst of war. You would be correct in doing so, but of course the film is much, much more complex than that and honestly I would be at a loss how best to suggest the film’s complexity be expressed in its press material.
In the simplest terms, the movie is an Israeli war drama about the effects of a young soldier’s death on his family. That alone would have held my interest, as war and its cost, when deftly handled, is fascinating enough. However, Foxtrot was not content to showcase such a straightforward premise and instead dives deep into family dynamics and personal demons.
It was warmly received at Venice and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won awards, but for some reason did not receive an Oscar nomination. Politics may come into play, as it depicts the Israeli Defense Force committing a problematic crime against Arabic people, and so the film was denounced by Israel’s Minister of Culture. There are much, much smarter people out there who can speak to the complexities of this subject, and I will willingly admit to ignorance on many of these issues.
Foxtrot, named for both the dance and the Nato phonetic alphabet, is not a light movie but it was a brilliant depiction of loss and raw emotions.
As always, spoilers below the cut.
Foxtrot opens with a leitmotif that, like the dance, will circle around again at the end of the film: a 1st-person perspective of an old, pitted road in a rocky desert. The very next scene is a close-up of Dafna Feldman (Sarah Adler) opening her front door. As the entire premise of the film is a family dealing with the grief of their soldier son being killed, it’s a loaded moment that performs a lot of tasks at once: it gets right to the meat of the story without dragging it out, it shows how overcome she is when she faints, it introduces her husband Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi), and it also showed how adept the Israeli military are at handling such events: several medics are along who catch the falling woman and immediately inject her with a sedative. I’ve no idea if that is standard practice or not, but seeing them take care of these people in their hour of need was immensely moving. The medics provide medications, advise Michael to eat with the understanding he won’t feel like it, and even program his phone to go off every hour to remind him to drink water.
Alone while his wife sleeps, Michael must deal with the reality of his son being dead. As mentioned, just this depiction of the profound loss experienced by military families would have been grounds enough to hold interest. One brilliant composition shows him letting in the family dog while also putting imagery to his emotional turmoil: he walks sedately down the hallway to the doorway, framed in the middle distance, where the dog’s jumping outline in the frosted glass mirrors the distortion he is feeling. What was once familiar is now strange and monstrous, but it still must be dealt with. Although that was a powerful image, as the movie peels away Michael’s layers it reveals how easily we, the audience, might be taken in by his appearance of normalcy, as he is anything but.
Michael notifies his family, goes through with funeral planning with a breathtakingly pragmatic military rep, and tries to get in touch with his daughter. A particularly heart-rending scene shows him trying to tell his elderly mother her grandson is dead, but her dementia prevents her understanding precisely who he is or about whom he is talking. At one point, disturbed by his own emotional numbness, he holds his hand under burning hot water in an attempt to stir his feelings, knowing that his numbness is problematic.
Now that I’ve told you all that, I’ll tell you this – imagine those same medics showing up to let Michael know that Whoops – they had the wrong Jonathan Feldman! His son is alive and well. And here the movie diverges from its expected narrative – instead of being overjoyed, Michael is quite enraged.
Foxtrot is also about the sins of the father and how a refusal to deal with reality can cause history to repeat itself, but that’s a reductive description of an otherwise complicated story whose meandering pays off big time in the end.