Review: "Foxtrot"

Before it spirals out of control in its final few minutes, this Israeli firecracker was nevertheless unfairly dismissed when the nominations were announced for Best Foreign-Language Film at the 2018 Oscars. A mistake if you ask me. "Foxtrot" has been directed by Samuel Maoz ("Lebanon") in such an artful and unprecedented way. The film, split into three chapters, all but starts off with an emotional knockout of a scene, soldiers arrive at the home of a middle-aged couple Dafna (Sarah Adler) and Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) to tell them their son has been killed in action. They need tranquilizers to control the grieving mother, but dad is all cool and calm, despite the air of shock running through his face. Don't be fooled by his demeanor, Michael is about to burst open raw demons that have been lurking inside him for years. The first call he does is to his mother (Karin Ugowski), locking himself in a room, his face traumatized with fear and hurt, he has no words. Ashkenazi, best known to American viewers for his role as the Prime Minister of Israel in last year's underrated gem "Norman: The Moderate Rise and Fall of A New York Fixer," is mesmerizing as a dad that says more with his grieving face than any words can describe.

In the film's second section Maoz takes on four Israeli soldiers working in an isolate border checkpoint which seems to separate Israel and Palestine. Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), is the Feldmans' son, leading the group in random car intervenings. The boredom is contagious, think of Jake Gyllenhaal's character in "Jarhead," as these four youngsters have nothing to do but wait. Maoz' visuals during this sequence damn near blow your mind what with the limited spacial nature of the setting. The desert is turned into the surreal, and there's even a hypnotic dance with a rifle that will no doubt be attached to this film's reputation for years to come (it's even used in the poster). A camel shows up as well, the gate is hilariously opened for it to pass, but don't expect the same thing to happen to a car filled with a Palestinian family.

The final, and more problematic, third section has us back at the Feldman's household, as they try to cope with the loss of their son. Instead of continuing on with the ambiguous nature of the story, Maoz decides to give us answers and a final twist that feels like a copout. That's ok, because the ambition and reach he shows for most of "Foxtrot" is damn-near exhilarating. I also didn't see any of the "anti-Israel" narrative that some of his country's harshest critics have laid upon his film. Instead, the political statements are kept at a minimum here, in favor of an artful resonance to story and character development that leaves the viewer deeply impacted. There's humanism in the writer-director's film that feels like it could connect with both sides of the argument. [B+]