Seven key players are spun through three different related scenarios in Foxhole, writer/director Jack Fessenden’s experimental-theatre approach to film-making. There’s more than a blank stage and a couple of chairs, but not much.
As if to prove that statement nuts, Fessenden opens with an overhead shot of a mass of dead bodies on a battlefield in what, it becomes apparent, is the American Civil War. The fog of war here is literal, the air is thick, visibility is low.
The camera comes to rest on a foxhole where a bunch of Union soldiers are digging themselves in and trading the sort of dialogue that soldiers trade in – testing the boundaries of insubordination, musing on whether loved ones back home are still true.
Into this space where age and rank have been the obvious dividing lines, Fessenden introduces a badly wounded black man. The other guys are white, perhaps it didn’t need saying, but now it does – a further dynamic, explored as the white guys debate what to do with the newly arrived Jackson (Motell Gyn Foster). Conrad (Angus O’Brien) is all for helping him as much as possible, Clark (Cody Kostro) reckons they should just leave him to bleed out, which won’t be long anyway. The older guys, meanwhile, have the same debate at a slightly more esoteric level, Wilson (James Le Gros) and Morton (Alex Hurt) to-ing and fro-ing about whether the guys should fashion a stretcher and schlepp the wounded man five miles back to a hospital tent. Maybe Jackson was a slave before war broke out. His changing “value” as a human being is weighed against his innate worth as a fellow soldier. There’s also his totemic worth – this war is being fought, at some level, to free people like Jackson.
The action shifts to the First World War. The same actors, a different trench, and a different situation, when a German soldier (Alex Breaux) stumbles into the foxhole where American soldiers are sheltering. Expediency says shoot him, the code of gallantry dictates that, as a prisoner of war, the German should be spared and sent to a internment camp. Again an ethical discussion, again Conrad all for mercy and Clark for severity, the older guys also breaking down into opposing camps as the debate heats up about what the real purpose of this war actually is and what human values actually mean if they cannot survive a test. It comes to a vote, at which point Jackson, fully alive and kicking in this scenario, comes into play.
Fessenden moves on to the Gulf War, the same guys, now joined by a woman (Andi Matichak). Time has changed some dynamics. Jackson is the sergeant, he’s in charge. The foxhole now comes in the form of a Humvee. But after getting caught up in an IED/ambush scenario the guys are soon as at bay inside this seemingly impregnable vehicle as they were in the previous scenarios – there’s a wounded man to take care of and another “situation” to be aired.
Fessenden’s DP Collin Brazie shoots all three scenarios in different ways – soft washes of colour for the Civil War, harsh black and white for the First World War, intense searchlight brightness in the Gulf. Some things change, some things don’t – war is hell and in each case men (and women) trained for grunt combat actually find themselves dealing with the sort of big questions that people back home never have to.
Giving it a touch of unity is the score, again by Fessenden, who keeps it minimilaist throughout – rat-a-tat drums giving way to a pared-back orchestra yielding to ambient drones as the scenario shifts through the years.
Whether this is a film about war or race is moot. The same question could be said about the tripartite structure and whether it adds anything. But all the same it’s an impressive piece of low-budget film-making by Fessenden, who as the son of a low-budget maverick all-rounder Larry Fessenden (who produces) was probably born to this, with strongly cohesive performances all round, perhaps most of all in the Humvee sequence, when the confines of an under-siege military vehicle finally help drag Foxhole off the stage and properly onto the movie screen.
Foxhole – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022