If you’re looking for easy metaphors, Foxtrot helpfully explains the one in its title during a scene between a pair of grieving parents. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) demonstrates to his younger wife Dafna (Sarah Adler) the dance’s simple, repetitive steps, first separating and then bringing his feet back together. “No matter where you go,” he says, “you always end up at the same starting point.”
The film, too, has a circular nature: The first and third sections in its three-act format echo each other in their near-claustrophobic focus on Michael and Dafna as they process the news that their soldier son, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), has been killed in action. Forget the blatant box-step metaphor, though: Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz does not bring us back to our starting point. Foxtrot is an extraordinary experience, full of sadness, humor, banality, and beauty, and you will likely come out of it changed, or at least moved.
Michael dominates the first chunk of Maoz’s triptych, and we watch him suffocated by disbelieving grief while Dafna sleeps under sedation in their Tel Aviv apartment. The rawness of Michael’s agony collides with the implacable bureaucratic calm of the Israel Defense Forces officers who have brought the family the bad news and attempt to make funeral arrangements. One helpful soldier instructs Michael to drink a glass of water every hour, even setting an alarm on his phone to remind him, but when Michael’s not sitting in silence or attempting to choke down swallows of water, he lashes out destructively, kicking Jonathan’s poor dog and putting his hand under hot water until it burns the skin. An early twist reframes everything, but I think it’s best left unrevealed, though there are subsequent, crueler twists in Michael and Dafna’s future.
Gone is the deliberately cramped perspective of Maoz’s last film. In its place are a series of fantastic, indelible visuals: a riderless camel; a shipping container slowly sinking into the earth; a young Arab woman caught in the checkpoint’s searchlight.
Then Foxtrot’s poetic central section unfolds, and it’s a remarkable mini-film of its own, depicting Jonathan at his post at a desolate border checkpoint. Surrounded by vast stretches of flat, muddy desert and only occasionally disrupted by a lone vehicle, Jonathan and his fellow soldiers are isolated in a limbo of repetition. The film’s tone turns comically bizarre, using surreal flourishes to depict the dehumanizing day-to-day boredom of the young men’s assignment even as it reveals the undeniable tug of hope. Gone is the deliberately cramped perspective of Maoz’s last film, 2009’s excellent, autobiographical Lebanon, which took place entirely inside an Israeli tank during the 1982 Lebanon War. In its place are a series of fantastic, indelible visuals: a riderless camel; a shipping container slowly sinking into the earth; a young Arab woman caught in the checkpoint’s searchlight.
There’s a sense that maybe we’ve left the real world during this bravura middle sequence: Are we inside Michael’s head, imagining what the final days of his son—an aspiring artist—must have been like? But there are details too small and banal to be wholly imagined, and the quiet squalor of the soldiers’ lives is interrupted by brief spasms of casual cruelty, ecstatic release, and, of course, violence. Soon we’re inside Jonathan’s head, too, and his drawings come to life in an animated sequence that may not necessarily tell the truth of Michael’s biography, but certainly illustrates how Jonathan sees his father.
Despite the Israel-Palestine conflict that colors Foxtrot—and the condemnation the movie received from the Israeli government for one controversial sequence—I’d guess that explicit political commentary is the furthest thing from Maoz’s mind. Instead, he’s interested in a much more personal type of storytelling, one where hilarity and pain exist on equal footing, like perfectly matched dance partners. Maybe there’s something to that foxtrot metaphor after all.