Foxtrot is an Israeli twist on Jarhead. If that’s not an especially useful comparison, I apologise; Jarhead, like most of Sam Mendes’ post-American Beauty, pre-Bond work, has largely vanished from the cultural consciousness. (Remember Away We Go? Anyone?) For those who missed the 2005 release, Jarhead was a numbing, lightly satirical look at modern warfare from the perspective of a couple marines.
The protagonists were conditioned by a militaristic society to regard themselves as weapons; Jarhead – buoyed by beauty provided by Roger Deakins’ cinematography – rigorously observed what happened when such weapons were never permitted to fire. Of course, contemporary U.S. marines choose their path, whereas Israeli men and women must serve in the military for two years. While Foxtrot might share with Jarhead a distanced, sceptical – and decidedly unexciting – view of contemporary warfare, its Israeli context shifts its critiques away from impotent violence towards a bureaucratic pseudo-satire (idly recalling Israeli comedy Zero Motivation from a few years back).
Writer/director Samuel Maoz, helming his second feature, splits the film into three distinct acts. The first centres on the affluent Feldmann family – father Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), mother Dafna (Sarah Adler) and daughter Alma (Shira Haas) – who are shocked to learn of the death of their son and brother, Jonathan (Yonathan Shiray), at his remote military outpost. Indeed, the entirety of this act unfolds in a state of dazed shock, with Michael in particular struggling to process his son’s passing. The failure of bureaucracy comes to the fore when the Feldmanns learn that, in fact, a different Jonathan Feldmann died, and Michael sets about exploiting his government contacts to bring his son home early.
Foxtrot’s first act is well-composed and well-performed, but a touch too muted for my tastes; but the film truly hits its stride in its second act, set at Jonathan’s desolate outpost. The young soldier and three companions undergo the mundane rituals. Occasionally these are official rituals – checking the IDs of the passengers in the rare car to pass along their dirt road – but primarily these young men do their best to kill time with an air of distanced detachment. The slow descent of the shipping container that doubles as their dorm into the sand is a potent symbol for their inexorable, tedious servitude.
This is a film about war, in a sense. So the eruption of violence late in the second act – the victims an innocent but unruly crew of young Arabs, their destruction predicated by a soft drink can mistaken for a grenade – feels somewhat inevitable. Initially, that struck me as disappointing. I can recall, for instance, when Apocalypse Now burst into tragedy enacted upon Vietnamese civilians, that it genuinely shocked me to my bones. In retrospect, though, that such a similar scene feels obligatory, even ordinary, is testament to how mandatory military services transforms the shocking into the everyday.
Maoz refuses to allow these everyday qualities to bleed into his filmmaking, evincing a restless creativity that’s occasionally exhausting but ensures that Foxtrot’s numbness of tone doesn’t extend into a numbing aesthetic. There are moments of joy, of expressiveness, of terror, each executed in ways that shake the viewer into paying attention. In some ways, this compensates for the simplicity of the characters – the limited dialogue means that few characters beyond Michael grow beyond sketches – but it also underlines its similarities to Jarhead, another film that compensated from some of its thematic thinness with aesthetic experiments. As someone who gelled with these experiments, it worked for me, but I can see it leaving viewers hoping for a more engaging narrative out in the cold.