FILM REVIEW: Israel’s Oscar Submission FOXTROT Deals With Senseless Death
Death, meaningless and stupidly unnecessary death, is the theme that binds together the three acts of the Israeli movie Foxtrot. A leading contender to receive top honors in the Foreign Language Film Oscar race later this award season, the story follows a family that in the opening sequences receives tragic news about their son in the army. But there is more to the film than initially meets the eye, an exacting and hopeless study of the banality and meaningless of life and death.
In the opening act, Israeli army soldiers come to deliver with transactional precision the devastating news. The mother, Daphna, faints upon seeing the soldiers, while the father, Michael, goes into a mixture of shock and demonic rage. To their rescue come Michael’s brother and the expertly trained soldiers, but they are an absurd little finger on a gaping hole of emotion that is ready to rip up and rip through and spill itself bare onto the screen. The soldiers’ nonchalant demeanor is telling in its frivolity, the evils of a militaristic state exposed. The parents’ grief, meanwhile, is no less extreme, but at least you can garner sympathy for it and share their devastation.
But Foxtrot shifts gears as violently as sound and movements invade the first part of the film. We are transported to the northern border outpost in which the couple’s son Jonathan is stationed. The lives of these teenagers hits yet another extreme—extreme boredom contrasted with the waking realization that young men carry deadly weapons to carry out a seemingly pointless task. They man a rundown road barrier, one through which a camel crossing is the most excitement in days, or where a random couple driving presumably home at the middle of the night provide something to talk about. Jonathan and his cohorts take turns manning the spotlight they use to question drivers and inspect vehicles, and spend the ennui of their bored days discussing the inclination of their living quarters.
Whereas in the first part of the Foxtrot triptych tragedy has been shown from the outset, in this middle section you are made to hold your breath expectantly, waiting for it to happen. What ensues is more or less what you would expect, with the sensible Jonathan in the middle, projecting our own desire to wonder: what is all of this for? Highly self-critical of one of the nations that produced the film (Israel), Foxtrot exhumes once more the militaristic culture that swindles a country into not asking questions when commands come from uniformed leaders, and to follow their dictates with reckless abandon. It is not just the grieving parents of part one but the disinterested teenagers of part two that ever so subtly tell you that these are meaningless deaths, rendering life itself without purpose.
The third act of Foxtrot is arguably its weakest point. We return to the world of Michael and Daphna, a world that is somehow even darker than in the first installment. Unlike the first two pieces, which purposefully confuse the viewer as to time place and occurrence, Michael and Daphna’s pain—their oh so ironic, pointless, and avoidable pain—is laid bare and explained. But, also unlike the first two pieces, where subtlety still exists around the contours of the sneakily loud exposition, here all bets are off. Still, Foxtrot delivers because it expertly projects through the raw emotion and tragedy of its characters its broader point: we are all suffering and we cannot understand why. The devastation comes not only from our poor choices, but also from a crueler source—fate, randomness, and illogical occurrences. Just when you think that a well thought out principle could deliver an absolution, Foxtrot tells you not to bother. Not only is it all pointless, it is also all beyond your control in any event.
The Foreign Language Film race at the Oscars is without question one of its bleakest. But bleak as bleak gets, Israel’s Foxtrot takes it to an almost cruel level. Without ever rendering itself as purposeless as the human life it skewers, it brilliantly analyzes that futility. For the faint of heart, it is not.