The movies have long exploited — abused, even — the trauma of the loss of a child. Yes, thoughtful filmmakers have crafted incisive dramas from the theme, but how often is such a loss just tossed into a script to give, for example, a Sandra Bullock space thriller some, uh, gravity? I’ve often wondered, when stuck watching films that cheaply plumb what’s probably the most wrenching loss a person can suffer, what it must be like for a parent who actually has outlived a child to see such bereavement used as motivation for mere movie heroics, a sort of life-shattering call to adventure.
There’s nothing cheap about Israeli writera-director Samuel Maoz’s searing drama Foxtrot. The film opens with parents in Tel Aviv getting the worse news they could: Their son Jonathan, serving his time in the Israeli military, has been killed “in the line of duty.” The mother, Dafna (Sarah Adler), faints before the soldier at her door can get the words out. The father, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), sits stunned and unresponsive as the bureaucracy kicks in around him. Michael’s eyes are examined. He’s given pills. He’s told to drink water every hour — one of the officials issuing these instructions programs a reminder alert into Michael’s phone. Most of this transpires in one mesmerizing shot, with Michael’s face in mid–close-up in the screen’s center as the officials pass before him. He nods sometimes, tries to focus, fights off panting. Their words seem to wash over him. Finally a glass of water is put into his hands and nudged to his lips.
The first third of Foxtrot is a study in disorientation. Maoz (Lebanon, Total Eclipse) stirs complex emotions through a rigorous and inventive formalism. We observe Michael, after the officials have gone, from above, from his ceiling, as he paces his bathroom and hallways: He has no idea what to do with himself. His phone pings, once in a while, and what had seemed a throwaway joke — drink water! — becomes a crucial organizing conceit. As he talks to relatives, handles arrangements and tries to talk to a near-catatonic Dafna, we sense him losing focus, losing himself, but then, every hour, he’s snapped to attention.
Soon, though, Foxtrot reveals itself as something stranger than what these opening minutes promise. Michael gets word that, actually, Jonathan hasn’t been killed at all — it was another young soldier with the same name! Michael’s baffled and apoplectic: How does he know he can believe this? He demands to see his boy now.
Something similar once happened to Maoz. The writer-director spent five hours one day convinced his daughter had died in a bus crash. She didn’t, but that harrowing experience informs every stunned, detailed shot of Foxtrot’s opening.
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From there, for the film’s tensely comic middle section, Maoz cuts to the listless military life of Jonathan and his squadmates. It’s not immediately clear when these scenes of bored soldiers manning a remote desert checkpoint are taking place: Is this the past? The present? The opening scenes found Michael confined and disoriented, an animal in a cage; these scenes find young soldiers confined, too, but sprawled out and sleepily amused with themselves. They play games with their tech and weapons and industrial meals, letting cans of tomatoes roll across their uneven floor. Maoz and his cinematographer, Giora Bejach, stage and shoot some minor reveries: the checkpoint’s gate opening so an unaccompanied camel can saunter through; the soldiers, unsupervised, shooting off a flare into the black night or studying the sky reflected in a puddle. Headlights and spotlights are always fascinating invasive events, suggestive of an impromptu eye exam Michael endures just after he’s been told that Jonathan has died.
The kids are funny, too, especially Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), who dishes a long monologue about him and Michael and a Playboy. Once in a while, a car pulls up to the checkpoint, and the young men stare down the drivers and passengers. They’re not above toying with the travelers: One cruelly beautiful scene finds a woman dressed in a formal gown forced to stand in a spotlight as the rain drenches her.
Maoz is as good at youthful languor as he is at the process of grief. This middle section of the film abounds with insights and moments of surprising desert beauty. But coursing beneath it is our awareness that this all could go very bad at anytime — and, of course, it does, just not in ways you can easily anticipate. Even as Maoz seems to be addressing his themes head on, he’s cleverly setting up the conditions for tragedy, and when it hits, it’s somehow both shocking and inevitable.
The finale returns us to Tel Aviv in the aftermath — and Michael and Dafna finding their way toward each other once again. The performances are superlative: subtle, rumbled, with the sense between husband and wife of a lifetime of love and disappointment. On occasion, the camera spins more than it might need to, Maoz’s technique doing the work the performers have already accomplished. Like his characters, the writer-director seems a little restless by the end, eager to get back to living. Other than that, the film (which won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival) exhibits a confident mastery.