A triptych of vignettes set in places where exhaustion, tedium, fear and duty collide to make moral reasoning difficult, Foxhole marks the second feature so far by a filmmaker barely out of his teens. Jack Fessenden (son of genre fixture Larry, a producer here) wears many hats, most of them very well, teaming with a fine cast to deliver a war film where happy endings may be imagined but bloody ones are never in doubt.
The protagonists are Americans caught in three different conflicts: the Civil War, World War I, and Iraq. The same actors play characters with the same names in each episode (with slight variations), but while some similarities of temperament carry over from one incarnation to the next, that’s as far as the overlap goes.
An ambitious multipart war drama making the most of meager resources.
DP Collin Brazie gives each segment a distinct, era-appropriate look, making the most of a clearly tiny budget. In keeping with the confinement of the titular setting, where soldiers huddle in illusory, or at best temporary, shelter, the drama has the intimacy of a theatrical production and could very easily have been staged that way. (Fessenden will eventually open the film up a bit, making good dramatic use of exterior location shots.)
Each scene is a five-man drama, with enemy soldiers introduced when necessary. One of the men is replaced by a woman in Iraq, reflecting contemporary realities, and the script accommodates the changing nature of service for the Black character(s) played by Motell Gyn Foster: Jackson is a sergeant in Iraq; can’t carry a rifle to the front in World War I; and is a “buffalo soldier” separated from his fellow troops in the first episode.
That first episode offers our protagonists the film’s most charged debate. This time around, Jackson didn’t start out in the foxhole with the four other Union soldiers: He staggered in from elsewhere, very badly wounded, claiming to have fought with a rebel and to know where his regiments are located. The nearest doctor who could help him is five miles away, and a frightened young recruit named Clark (Cody Kostro) says there’s no use trying to get him there: They’d endanger themselves, and the field hospital may well refuse to treat a Black man anyway. The group’s eldest member, Wilson (James Le Gros, wielding moral authority in all three episodes), argues the other side.
The men are more evenly split the second time around, when a German soldier stumbles into their shelter and, caught, tries to surrender. Kill the man as if he were attacking, or treat him humanely as a prisoner? Does it matter if he has battlefield intel he can share? As the German, Alex Breaux is hard to read, which isn’t quite enough to make us side with Morton (Alex Hurt), who’s sure the man will endanger them if he’s not killed on the spot.
Where the two historical episodes directly address both doubts and the self-motivating idealism soldiers experience (in the first, a letter home sounds just like one from Ken Burns’ The Civil War; in the second, Wilson has to remind his comrades they’re “representing the United States of America”), the third has little room for ideals beyond survival — albeit a vision of survival in which the possibility of leaving the wounded behind doesn’t even come up for discussion.
A Humvee piloted by Gale (Andi Matichak) is ambushed when its spotter/gunner (Angus O’Brien’s Conrad, a beacon of righteous behavior in previous episodes) takes his eyes off the road. Five Marines sit in the increasingly claustrophobic transport (Fessenden’s frames grow tighter as the minutes pass), shooting into a distance that is so sun-blasted it’s completely invisible to the camera — a common-sense solution to budgetary constraints that doesn’t lessen suspense in the least and, in fact, serves the action well. With his leg pinned in a way that makes moving him potentially fatal, Wilson is stoic while Jackson strategizes against an unknown number of attackers. Will their convoy return for them, or is this vehicle the last home they’ll ever know?
Throughout, Fessenden directs and edits tense dialogue sequences with skill, only once letting an actor stretch his performance slightly beyond the film’s dramatic gamut. He’s a bit less successful as the picture’s composer: Though the music itself suits the action well — like any good prodigy, Fessenden also has a nascent music career — it’s too prominent in the sound mix, sometimes trying too hard to push us toward emotional responses we’re already having. But this is a small complaint against a movie that almost entirely rises to the height of its ambitions. Let other films argue whether war is ever defensible or pit one conflict’s righteousness against another’s; Foxhole cares about the individuals tasked with fighting, in the hours that challenge them most.