Venice Film Festival – Day #4: “Foxtrot”

As a young man in 1982, Samuel Moaz is a gunner for the Israel Defense Forces. He witnesses unspeakable horrors. In 2017, he makes Foxtrot, a film about another Israeli gunner, the fated bond he shares with his parents, and the modern mystery of war. He receives a tepid ovation at the Lido, and a moderate flurry of internet praise.

What’s openly personal about this film, I don’t want to speak to. I’ve never killed a civilian. I’ve never lost a son. Further, my understanding of Israeli culture is typically unremarkable. But Moaz does play a neat trick that I feel equipped to pick at, a structural experiment that is ultimately confounding, even if somewhat satisfying at a distance.

The narrative is spliced together in such a way that it delivers what I’ll go ahead and call a “blunt twist.” I haven’t been able to muster up a strategy for delving into the theoretical machinations of this film without laying out the plot, so a forewarning: I’m going to majorly spoil this movie. Moaz’s use of non-linearity here is novel though, so unless you are really needing to see this film plot-unknown, follow along.

The film employs a tripartite structure, and it can be summed as such:

Part 1: A father and his wife learn that their son has died in combat. After some time, they are informed that their son did not actually die. Instead, a soldier with the same name died and there was some confusion. The father demands he see his son, unconvinced of the military’s competency in relaying correct information.

Part 2: The son has, in fact, not died: for some time, we are invited to watch him guard a post on a supply route, one that hardly any civilian passes through. War-boredom ensues, and in its midst, a needless tragedy occurs (irrelevant for our discussion, but thematically salient for the film itself). Afterwards, an officer comes to transport the son back home, per his father’s wishes (as was shown in Part 1).

Part 3: The father and his wife are at ends. Unclearly, time has passed. Through exposition, we are told yes, the son has died. But weren’t we just shown he didn’t? After rounds of charges and petitions that are common to domestic squabbles, we brush the awareness that the father’s plea from Part 1 has something to do with the couple’s apparent suffering. After the two have a reconciliatory embrace:

Finale: It’s shown that while the son was being transported home, he was involved in a car crash. He dies, for real this time. Cut to black.

I find this injection of non-linearity in the 3rd act fascinating, mainly due to the singularity of its expression, but also because the film teaches us early on not to trust the information it delivers us. In Part 1, we believe the son has died, and then we are told he’s alive; in Part 2, we are categorically shown that the son hasn’t died, and we realize that our first instinct, to trust the film, was brazenly naive. In effect, there is an understanding that the evidence we are being given is, at any time, subject to radical recontextualization. So, when Part 3 arrives, and the premise for the ensuing drama is that, somehow, the son has actually died, we are cynical, and perhaps bewildered. There is a suspicion that we shouldn’t trust the preconception of the son’s death here, even with the parents so vividly performing off the certainty of that reality.


But that cynicism is never rewarded – at least not for the reasons it was formed. And over time, as a viewer, ever aware that the film is ending, and that according to its previous nature, it would be uncharacteristic for the film’s final act to be some fantastical flight, the realization arrives as a glacier, that there was nothing circumspect occurring before you at all, save a regular turn of irony. We were right to be cynical, but not because the information that was given to us was unreliable (as was the case in Part 1), but because we were being shown events out of order (as we see Part 3 before the Finale, even though chronologically the Finale happens before Part 3).

This is what I mean by a “blunt twist”: where you were expecting a smack of knowledge, withheld to the end, to illuminate what you were watching, piecemeal crumbs of that knowledge were being speckled out the whole time. The final scene doesn’t revolutionize your perspective; it just gives your suspicions a final place to rest.

When I came out of the theater, my first impulse was to indict this narrative maneuver with the unenthusiasm I felt for the film. It just seemed to me that there was no way you could enact this structural set-up without overcasting the 3rd act entirely, essentially broadcasting your satirical point at the cost of the audience’s immersion. While interesting, I don’t think that’s a fair transaction for the viewer.

But thinking through it, I find the structure now a breath of ingenuity. It’s something special when structure alone can churn out a taste of sick fate, and make us feel available to all flanks of attack. And frankly, despite my theoretical misgivings, the 3rd act of this movie was easily its best, and even legitimately great.

Really, the problem I haven’t been able to shake is this: for each of its three parts, the film sunders into distinct tones, and never tells us why. Part 1 comes off as a soapy, The Young and the Restless-styled comedy-of-errors; Part 2 is basically an Israeli Jarhead; and Part 3 is where the bacon gets sizzled (thanks to the dazzle of Sarah Adler’s fearsome ability), in a Coke Light version of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. These three parts have such apparent flavors, and yet there is nary an elucidation for their divergences. When you are already playing an elaborate game with narrative form, it seems cumbersome to start adding random new rules whose purpose you never explain.

So would I recommend it? Depends; you can make a good academic exercise out of watching it. The 1st act is such a goofy melodrama it approaches tone-deafness. More offensively, the 2nd act, in its efforts to showcase the tedium of war, just actually becomes tedious itself. But the 3rd act is entrancing, enough so that I felt my time was well spent. And though the final scene might be a car crash you can see coming a mile away, most films could only have an ending so seamless in their dreams.

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