'Foxtrot' Review: Tragedy And Comedy Intermingle In One Of The Best Movies Of 2017 [TIFF]

Comedy and tragedy are usually treated as two wildly different emotions – the Golden Globes even consider them so different as to break up their film awards into two tracks on those lines. But for a writer/director like Samuel Maoz, the dichotomy is not so clear-cut. His new film Foxtrot, the stealth sensation of 2017's fall festival season, evinces how these two experiences are not opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. Maoz, in just his second narrative feature, repeatedly demonstrates the way hilarity and calamity are never far removed from one another. Just one break in the other direction can produce a wild twist of fate.

With the absurdist deadpan of Swedish master Roy Andersson, Foxtrot captures a unique look at how young men respond to both the banality and boredom of war, as well as how adults absorb the trauma of death. It's best to let the strange whims of life in the film guide the viewing journey; go in as blind as possible. As he charts the impact of a calamitous development, Maoz responds to a full range of human reactions. They're never treated as separate gears to operate. Instead, pain and humor are complementary forces that overlap and bleed into each other.

Take, for example, an earnest suggestion given to Michael Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi) after receiving some bad news: drink a glass of water every hour. The soldiers delivering this message stand by to make sure he gets the necessary hydration, then program his phone with a reminder every 60 minutes. It's the kind of thing that seems a little strange in the moment, but it comes full circle when the alarm starts going off in later scenes, each time becoming funnier and pettier against the graver problems the characters must face.

Foxtrot also a lengthy monologue delivered by Michael's son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray) to his fellow soldiers that takes a similarly yo-yo approach to its emotional trajectory. As he details the touching journey of a family artifact through the Holocaust, the story quickly takes a childish, irreverent turn that will elicit gasps and laughs in equal measure. And then, as he brings his spiel to a close, it returns to that same tender territory of sincerity.

This broad spectrum never seems to intimidate Maoz in the slightest. Foxtrot provides that rare feeling of total reassurance that what's on screen is the product of a true master. We're seeing what he wants us to see, but more importantly, feeling what he wants us to feel. Every composition lines up with the utmost precision, although Maoz has more in mind than just #OnePerfectShot style fetishized aesthetic. The fine details are everywhere in the film, from the sound design of ripping off a band-aid's adhesive to minutiae of how young soldiers occupy their copious downtime along a traffic checkpoint. As Maoz makes his larger statements, it's reassuring to also see his grounding in the reality of this world.

Maoz's shot of choice in Foxtrot is the bird's eye view, an angle that's traditionally credited with putting the filmmaker (and thus the audience, by extension) in a privileged position over the characters. From a viewpoint only possible to a deity, the figures on screen shrink to resemble something like figures in a dollhouse. To the director's credit, Foxtrot somehow avoids feeling diminutive from this vantage point – or any, for that matter. Their best laid plans might go down the drain, there's never any sense that he laughs at them or revels in their pain. As subjected as they all are to the vagaries of a fickle and bitterly ironic universe, Maoz always gives voice to the cries of his characters. They exist as more than just instruments to prove his thesis, which elevates Foxtrot beyond a mere discussion of ideas. The film embodies them, allowing them to resonate and register on the most profoundly human of levels.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10