Icy absurdism and sorrowful ironies abound throughout Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, whose laughs stick in your throat like the silent screams of its Job-like protagonist, Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi). Play-like but never stagey, the film is divided into three acts, each one limited to a single location: Michael and his wife Daphna’s (Sarah Adler) tony Tel Aviv apartment in the first and last parts, and in between them a remote military checkpoint manned by a small unit of I.D.F. soldiers that includes the Feldmans’ son, Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray). The two settings could scarcely be more different: one an airy, well-appointed space with expensive-looking modernist art on the walls, the other a narrow road in the midst of a desolate—almost lunar—desert landscape where an old ice cream truck has been converted into an ID-scanning center and a shipping container serves as a makeshift living quarters.
This latter place, codenamed Foxtrot, is a kind of surrealist purgatory in which the absurdities of Israeli society’s militarization are put on full display. The soldiers’ days are spent lounging around, eating canned meat, playing video games, rolling cans across their barracks’ severely tilted floor, and occasionally raising the crossing gate to let a camel pass by. Women are nowhere to be seen except in a painting, a drawing, or a tattoo. When Palestinian motorists drive through the checkpoint, they’re treated with suspicion and hostility. And as we eventually come to see, even in this sleepiest of military outposts, violence can erupt at any moment. In fact, Maoz even suggests that killing may be an inevitable byproduct of the tedium, sexual frustration, and antagonistic posturing endemic to this place.
Who are these men supposed to be protecting out there in the middle of nowhere anyway? Ostensibly, their job is to keep people like Michael and Daphna safe, but instead, this isolated outpost brings only tragedy to the couple’s lives. As Foxtrot opens, Michael and Daphna are informed that their son has died, and while the truth will turn out to be more complicated, the message causes a fundamental rupture in their relationship, while also dredging up Michael’s suppressed trauma from his own military service. The character, incapable of fully accessing his emotions, looks lost and confused upon hearing the news; unable to cry, he kicks the family dog instead. Maoz’s subtle, meticulous compositions underscore Michael’s alienation, intense close-ups magnifying the man’s disaffection and God’s-eye-view shots observing him from above like a rat in a maze. Even the couple’s Tel Aviv loft, with its forbidding abstract art, its bathroom that looks like a prison cell, and its awkward arrangement of furniture, seems to have been precisely calibrated to resist even the most basic sense of homey intimacy.
The world of war is so distant from Michael’s life and yet so near, never spoken and yet ever-present. His military experience haunts him, though to what extent isn’t fully clear until late in the film, when he finally opens up about his past. In his sad, soulful eyes we can sense his anguish, which feels deeper and more bitter than simple grief, and we perceive his bemusement at the military officers who control every detail of his son’s funeral, refusing even to allow Michael to see his son’s body before its buried. Ashkenazi, who looks a bit like Steve Carell and shares the actor’s flair for quick rage and mournful detachment, embodies a type of person common in Israeli society: the outwardly well-adjusted ex-soldier inwardly struggling with PTSD.
This is a person well known to Maoz, who himself fought in the 1982 Lebanon War—a harrowing experience that served as the basis for his first film, Lebanon. For all of Foxtrot’s dreamlike imagery and off-kilter humor, it’s the grief, terror, and rage of living with the memories of war that lies at the film’s heart. Maoz approaches his narrative as if he were putting together a puzzle—one that attains a deeper pathos and sense of absurdism as each new piece is put into place. When the full picture emerges, it’s not a pretty one, but rather a tragic, brutal, cosmically absurd portrait of a man who has refused to confront his own scars of war and of a society that has done the same.