Foxtrot

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Samuel Maoz

Starring

Lior Ashkenazi Sarah Adler Yonaton Shiray

Anticipation.

Samuel Maoz’s very belated follow-up to his 2009 award-winner, Lebanon.

Enjoyment.

Looks great, feels great, almost is great…

In Retrospect.

…but really sticks the landing.

Corruption reigns free on the Israel/Palestine border in this intriguing feature from Samuel Maoz.

There’s a kind of performative anxiety that comes when a film director who is lauded by festivals and awards bodies decides to slink back into the realms of relative anonymity rather than crack out a quickie follow-up to capitalise on any residual success and brand awareness.

Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival way, way back in 2009 for his debut feature, Lebanon, a film whose neat gimmick was that it was set entirely within the belly of a tank. We’ve had an additional two year wait for that second film, as Foxtrot premiered in Venice in 2017.

The wait has been worth it, but maybe the occasion feels a little less celebratory than it should. Maoz’s new feature is a pristinely sculpted tale of familial desolation with the folly of modern warfare lurking in the background.

Initially, it plays like a claustrophobic horror film where the portentous stench of death hangs in the air. From its very first frames, there’s the sense that this is a film that has been laboured over, thought through and refined down to its purest essence. Maoz manages to make the drab domestic setting of a harried architect and his wife appear almost as a futurist palace. Every camera placing is designed to either nudge some subtle visual symbolism to the fore, or else house some evocative, painterly flourish.

And maybe that’s a problem: this feels like a work where someone has spent so long thinking about the details that the bigger picture has been lost and an irritating flaw is the one thing that sticks in the memory as the credits roll. It is the story of a couple who are told that their son has been killed in the line of duty – manning a checkpoint on the Israel/Palestine border. Suddenly his vacant bedroom becomes a shrine for innocence lost. The authorities, however, are mincing their words and fudging their story – it’s as if they’re inventing a cosy narrative as a way to dilute the horrid facts.

The film’s more entertaining (but no-less bleak) second half flashes back to the son, Jonathan, and his three young, antsy cohorts out in the dessert, sleeping in a shipping crate that’s sinking into a bog  and eating lots and lots of rancid canned meat. Theirs is a life of boredom and servitude, made bearable only because they’re allowed to carry guns and are made to think that they’re vital cogs within a hulking piece of geopolitical machinery.

Their drudgery and isolation ends up making their fear more obvious – when cars trundle down this road, their anxiety and lack of worldliness leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the most simple processes, even while presenting a veneer of militaristic authority.

It’s a strange film, impressive as a piece of finely-wrought craft which brims with caustic emotion. It even works as an enraged screed about political corruption at the core of a dirty war in which human life has less than no value. Everything is so minutely calibrated that, when we arrive at the film’s glib punchline (and it’s a punchline rather than a conclusion), you feel that Maoz has undersold his aims in search of ironic bathos rather than something more meaningful and impactful.

It’s a bit of a wash out, and undoes lots of the good work that precedes it. Even so, Maoz definitely knows how to knock a film together, so fingers crossed that the window between this and his next one is a lot more narrow.

Published 1 Mar 2019

Tags: Samuel Maoz

Anticipation.

Samuel Maoz’s very belated follow-up to his 2009 award-winner, Lebanon.

Enjoyment.

Looks great, feels great, almost is great…

In Retrospect.

…but really sticks the landing.

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