Movie Review: Macho overkill in Tel Aviv

A tense, flawed drama about power politics among men, Tnu'ah Migunah (Foul Gesture) is set in motion by a woman.

macho 88 (photo credit: )
macho 88
(photo credit: )
FOUL GESTURE (Tnu'ah Migunah) Drama/Thriller (Israel) 95 min. A tense, flawed drama about power politics among men, Tnu'ah Migunah (Foul Gesture) is set in motion by a woman. Tamar Kleinhaus (Keren Mor), a hospital worker in Tel Aviv, is loading packages into the passenger side of the family car when the driver behind her, blocked by her open door, begins to honk. Sanctifying the occasion with only the most colorful Arabic curse words, Tamar flips the offending driver the Middle Eastern version of the bird (same finger, different position), setting off an unpleasant, not entirely believable chain of events involving her husband. He's Michael (Gal Zaid), an unemployed Tel Aviv writer meant to represent the emasculated urban male, and he reacts with terror, then with slowly building rage, after watching the driver suddenly slam down the gas pedal, crash through the open passenger door and nearly hit his wife at full speed. "Follow him!" Tamar shouts, but Michael, not long to remain a functioning member of society, refuses. "I've got his license plate number," he says. Michael's attitude changes, however, after he goes to the police and finds himself treated first with apathy, then with rising levels of condescension and outright mockery. The man who hit his car, it turns out, is a well-connected gangster named Dreyfus (Asher Tzarfati), and low-level bureaucrats in the Israel Police are decidedly unmotivated to pursue charges against him. "Isn't there supposed to be rule of law in this country?" Michael asks, bewildered. Nope. The stage is set, consequently, for some vigilante justice, an undertaking Michael begins with a man-made scratch on Dreyfus' massive black SUV. But Michael is quickly tracked down by the gangster's supporting goons, leading to confrontations that grow increasingly ugly and decreasingly credible as they escalate. Given multiple opportunities to extricate himself from the conflict, Michael continues further down his scary, self-destructive path, endangering his son and risking his marriage - and probably his life - along the way. In its stronger opening section, Foul Gesture evokes the tension and sharp social insight of The Trigger Effect, the underrated 1996 Hollywood thriller about a couple (Elisabeth Shue and Kyle MacLachlan) unexpectedly thrust into a Hobbesian state of nature, California style, after a massive regional blackout. Like that earlier film, Foul Gesture effectively taps into the primal instincts and baser urges that continue to underlie portions of human activity, even in a Tel Aviv of glittering skyscrapers and SUVs. But whereas The Trigger Effect put its characters through a progression of events that magnify both their deep-seated insecurities and their aggression, Foul Gesture fails to adequately explain its protagonist's powerful transformation. It's fine that Michael becomes less sympathetic as the story moves on, but his increasingly reckless actions feel less like authentic reflections of his character and more and more like manipulations by the screenwriters, Zaid and Ya'ackov Ayali. Zaid and his partner clearly have well-defined ideas about how Israeli men conceptualize honor and masculinity, even in post-modern, ultra progressive Tel Aviv, but their observations, unfortunately, are based on a character whose behavior doesn't compute. Foul Gesture doesn't come across, thankfully, as a simple-minded revenge fantasy, surely one of the more odious of film genres. Its problem, rather, is that its intentions are completely high-minded, making it hard to decode the ending - an explosive but dubious scene probably meant to be read both as Michael's triumph and as his irrevocable descent into thuggery. Not helping matters is the film's penchant for unsubtle visual metaphors, which, though occasionally playful (a Yin-Yang symbol on Michael's computer) grow increasingly self-important and gratuitous (a TV report in the background about an IDF missile strike) as the movie wears on. "Curiosity killed the cat," Michael's cousin says at one point, in a film that's undone by its own overreaching ambition. Directed by Tzahi Grad, Foul Gesture starts out as a rarity in Israeli cinema, neither a safe family drama nor a politically saturated look at the region's geopolitics. It's too bad, then, that the movie's makers couldn't satisfy themselves with a well-crafted, genuinely suspenseful thriller, a project they clearly could have achieved based on the film's start. Gesture is hardly an empty one, just a film carried away by the inflated ideas it needlessly strains to represent.