The movies have long exploited -- abused, even -- the trauma of the loss of a child. There's nothing cheap about Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz's searing drama Foxtrot. The film opens with parents in Tel Aviv getting the worse news they could: Their son Jonathan, serving his time in the Israeli military, has been killed "in the line of duty." The mother, Dafna (Sarah Adler), faints before the soldier at her door can get the words out. The father, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi), sits stunned and unresponsive as the bureaucracy kicks in around him. Michael's eyes are examined. He's given pills. He's told to drink water every hour -- one of the officials issuing these instructions programs a reminder alert into Michael's phone. Most of this transpires in one mesmerizing shot, with Michael's face in mid-close-up in the screen's center as the officials pass before him.
The first third of Foxtrot is a study in disorientation. Maoz (Lebanon, Total Eclipse) stirs complex emotions through a rigorous and inventive formalism. From there, for the film's tensely comic middle section, Maoz cuts to the listless military life of Jonathan and his squadmates at a remote desert checkpoint. Maoz is as good at youthful languor as he is at the process of grief. This middle section of the film abounds with insights and moments of surprising desert beauty. But coursing beneath it is our awareness that this all could go very bad at anytime -- and, of course, it does, just not in ways you can easily anticipate. Even as Maoz seems to be addressing his themes head on, he's cleverly setting up the conditions for tragedy, and when it hits, it's somehow both shocking and inevitable.