Review: 'Foxtrot', An Unrelentingly Brutal And Funny Look At War's True Cost

Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz doesn't make a lot of movies, only two features in the last nine years, but when he does they hit like the force of a grenade. His 2009 debut film Lebanon came out of nowhere to win the Golden Lion Award at Venice, and established him as a director whose antiwar sentiments were a much-needed addition on the international stage. Maoz essentially vanished afterwards, but it's clear that a lot has been on his mind in the years since. Foxtrot, which took the Grand Jury Prize at Venice and was recently snubbed by the Oscars, is Maoz again exploring the Israeli and Lebanon conflict, using absurdist humor to inflict maximum emotional damage.

In a haunting opening shot, we follow Daphna Feldman (Sarah Adler) as she goes to answer a doorbell at the front door. She already knows what it could mean, the pain and worry are etched on her face long before she ever gets there. Random doorbells are not a good thing when so many of the country's young men have been sent to serve in the armed forces, including her teenaged son, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray).  Sure enough, she answers the door and is given the bad news by the Israeli Defense Forces. Jonathan has been killed in action, and Daphna immediately faints from the shock.  Maoz shoots it in almost a comical way, but it's a humor that burns in your gut. The sensation doesn't go away any time soon as Jonathan's father, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), begins his grieving process. It starts with a sharp, brutal kick to their dog. If that doesn't make you hate Michael, at least in the beginning, nothing will. We get where his pain is coming from, and even his need to share it with others, but it's a tough scene to get over.

Maoz follows their pain through the entirety of the first of three acts, a gutsy decision because it could be tough for anyone to sit through. Fortunately Maoz, who also wrote the screenplay, relieves us in the second act with a dose of comedy. It's then that we're taken to Jonathan and his platoon out in some military outpost in the middle of nowhere. We find out their little squad is closer to Beetle Bailey or Gomer Pyle than Full Metal Jacket, as the soldiers pass the boredom by observing the absurdities of their situation. The sinking headquarters they live in is the size of shipping container, and nothing much seems to happen. Most of the time they only have to let through a passing camel or two, but if there's one message Maoz wants to get across it's that violence can find you anywhere. Whether you be safe and as far away from war as Daphna and Michael, or at an abandoned outpost where the only form of entertainment is breaking out into the foxtrot on occasion.

Visually, Maoz and cinematographer Giora Bejach twist the emotional knife by putting us right in the shoes of those caught in the grips of despair. To his credit, Maoz doesn't let up and trusts his audience to see it through and pick up on the tiny strands of joy that he leaves behind like breadcrumbs. In a bold visual he brings to animated life one of Jonathan's notebooks, where we see how talented of an artist he is and could be if he got out of that Hellhole. It's a bittersweet note, but one that pays off in the final act where Maoz examines the ripple effects caused by war. If there's an issue it's also here, as Maoz seems to be in the same boat as his grieving characters, just trying to make sense of it all. To cover he takes liberties with one unnecessary twist after another, and goes at least one step too far.

Surreal imagery and unrelenting sorrow make for a powerful combination, with Foxtrot hitting on some intense emotional truths about the enduring cost of war. Maoz, who fought in the 1982 Lebanon War, clearly has a lot left that he wants to say, and here's hoping he gets the chance to do it again soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5