The foxtrot is a dance where the dancer begins in a certain position and then goes through a series of steps to ultimately end back where they began. That kind of constantly repeating cycle might be fun on the dancefloor, but in Samuel Maoz’ devastating film, it’s not. When the film begins, an Israeli couple get the news that their son, serving out his mandatory service in the Israeli military, has been killed. And, as you might guess, the efforts to escape the sorrow and suffering brought about by this event are sometimes frantic, sometimes resigned, but always they lead back to the place where they started. This film is anchored by a trio of fantastic performances. Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler are wonderful as the grief-stricken and struggling parents, dealing with a litany of emotions, from grief to despair, from anger to bitterness, from disbelief to resignation. Yonaton Shiray is brilliant as the couple’s son, seen in some lengthy flashbacks. He’s stationed with a few other young men at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere; it doesn’t seem to be guarding anything and there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to stop cars on that road, nor do the occasional stops (perhaps two a day) ever uncover anything of any importance. It’s a soul-killing job and the boy’s young soul seems dead already as he shambles through the drudgery with a blank affect and dead eyes. The boys are baked in the heat or drenched in rain by day, sleeping in a shipping container that is literally sinking into the mud by night. As the shipping container slowly sinks, it tilts and the young soldiers are left literally living in a world that’s off-center, a world that’s off kilter and disorienting. The parents are similarly cast adrift in a world that seems upside down. They don’t know how to react to the fact that their son, who they know was basically a shiftless jerk, is going to be feted at a luxorious military funeral; he’s finally achieved greatness as a military hero through the stupidest of actions, dying in a pretty ignominious way.
The film is unremittingly bleak and grim and Maoz is clearly getting at something about Israeli society/government, but the themes are bigger than that even. The two times we see an actual foxtrot in the movie are both astonishing scenes. In the first, a soldier attempts to teach his compatriots about the dance by demonstrating it with his machine gun as a partner; the subtext runs miles deep on that scene, obviously. In the final section, it’s even more unsettling and disturbing. The first shot of the film is completely mundane, so mundane that when the shot ends and then the movie starts in a completely different setting, you don’t even really register it; but when we see the shot again at the end of the movie, we understand it and it’s a moment of really profound emotion, emotion so profound it’s hard to boil it down to exactly what it is. There’s sadness, bitterness and, most surprisingly, a sense of rightness, a sense that, yes, it’s all come back around and we’re back at the beginning of what seems like an endless cycle of meaninglessness and suffering. Not for the faint of heart, obviously, but it’s a truly astonishing film, a genuine masterpiece. And I haven’t even talked about the most surprising sequence in the film, something I truly didn’t see coming at any point. It’s a dark film, not quite nihilistic, but pretty close; if you watch the film, you might see the reason I say it pulls back just a bit at the end from complete nihilism and grants us a glimmer of comfort, but then again, maybe you won’t. It’s ambiguous, I think, and it will leave you wrestling with emotions that are complex and not easily categorized. It’s a controversial film and it’s easy to see why. But if art isn’t for statements like this, what’s it for? 4 stars.
tl;dr – devastating film from Israel is a profound statement on suffering, hopelessness, despair and the cycles we find ourselves caught in; a complex, challenging but deeply powerful work of art. 4 stars.