A movie on a lot of Oscar-snub lists this year is A Ghost Story, director David Lowery’s artsy film about how different habitants of the same home dealt with the grief that haunted them. The film played heavily on metaphor: Casey Affleck, whose character dies in a car crash early on, saunters around the house with a sheet over his head. It sounds lame out of context, but the filmmakers linger so much on human sorrow that the humanity is what’s deeply remembered, not the ghost. Rooney Mara, the wife, in utter despair eats a whole pie on screen for what feels like ten minutes. Oh yes, Lowery lets us sit with her grief. In the end we must ask: Is the house haunted, or does human grief just feel that tangible?
The film shares the love of metaphor and the artistic goal of capturing grief in some tangible way with another Oscar snubbed film: Israel’s Foxtrot. Foxtrot made the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film but failed to make the final cut. Director Samuel Maoz transports us to Tel Aviv, where the Israeli-Palestianian conflict has all but assured decades of grief for parents of young military enlistees. As in A Ghost Story, Maoz’s film begins with a death: Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler) just learned via all-too-surreal knock on the door that their 19-year-old son Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) has been killed in combat.
Maoz and cinematographer Giora Bejach are relentless in depicting this couples’ grief, trailing the camera on a mostly silent Michael (he is prone to random outbursts when prodded about funerals and other painful decisions), for the first half of the movie. Just imagine the confidence filmmakers must have in depicting grief over action. But Bejach keeps it interesting with bird’s eye view shots of Michael in the bathroom, banging on the walls, a scene as intimate as it is claustrophobic.
But just when the movie seems bound for another 60 minutes of the same, Maoz, who also wrote the script, throws a reprieve: We’re transported to Jonathan’s remote military outpost. Despite the boredom Jonathan and his three fellow comrades experience in the middle of nowhere, we finally get a bit of humor: The boys open the gate to allow a camel through. Jonathan, semi-automatic in hand, busts out into a classic dance — the foxtrot. It’s steps are all too important for the film’s ultimately satisfying message: move forward, step to the right, move back, step to the left. Repeat. In a circular fashion. Forever. Perhaps, an apt metaphor for man’s obsession with war? It’s not just war that repeats in Foxtrot, but the remnants of war: lost loved ones, PTSD, and families seeking to find meaning.
It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving something pivotal away, but suffice it to say Foxtrot is a smart film, worth the initial onslaught of grief for the puzzle of uncovering the film’s hidden messages. God bless filmmakers who trust their audience to be smart enough to figure things out without explicit expository dialogue.
Perhaps, this is one place in which A Ghost Story eventually falters and Foxtrot does not: three-quarters through A Ghost Story, a crazed monologue by a minor character explains the film’s plot in a nutshell. Foxtrot instead focuses on the kegs in the machine (e.g., the soldiers and their families), not the machine itself. The teenage soldiers aren’t quite old enough to express the inadequacies and atrocities their position requires. Instead, the boys sit around bored, dropping a can along the sloping floorboards of their trailer home, noticing each day, the can drops a second off its time. It’s up to the audience to determine why that might be. Perhaps, the military is creating too many holes in the ground to bury cars of passengers not lucky enough to make it through the security checkpoint — a crime the young soldiers become complicit in, even if they have no grudge against the passengers themselves.
On the homefront, with the grieving parents, Moaz illuminates military corruption through a brutal sense of irony as well. Michael and Daphna hang up an illustration their son captured from out in the field–a crane dropping a beaten-up car into a readymade hole. They debate which of them is the crane, searching to find some deep meaning in the picture. They get relief from it, not understanding at all that Jonathan’s illustration was an outlet for his trauma, not a metaphor for strong, caring parents. What do we even know about war, Foxtrot seems to ask, except it’s a dance that will surely never end.
On the home front with the grieving parents, Moaz illuminates military corruption through a brutal sense of irony as well. Michael and Daphna hang up an illustration their son captured from out in the field — a crane dropping a beaten-up car into a ready made hole. They debate which of them is represented by the crane, searching to find some deep meaning in the picture. They get relief from it, not understanding at all that Jonathan’s illustration was an outlet for his trauma, not a metaphor for strong, caring parents. What do we even know about war, Foxtrot seems to ask, except that it’s a dance that will surely never end.