Suddenly all you first-person shooter Play Station junkies seem like amateurs. Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kravitz and January Jones star in Good Kill.
Director – Andrew Niccol
Screenplay – Andrew Niccol
Producer – Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Mark Amin & Andrew Niccol
Rated R for violent content including a rape, language, and some sexuality
Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a U.S. Air Force pilot who’s gone from flying planes to operating drones. Though in a much safer position that allows him to more time to spend with his family, Egan’s become disillusioned with his job due to missing the thrill he got from flying and limited ability in controlling collateral damage during an airstrike. When he and his crew are now required to take orders from the CIA, the questionable missions they have him run begin to take a toll on him.
After his 1997 filmmaking debut Gattaca and receiving a Best Original Screenplay nomination for 1998’s The Truman Show, writer/director Andrew Niccol hasn’t made much, if anything, that could be considered noteworthy. With the one exception of the underrated Nicolas Cage vehicle Lord of War, his career has teetered back and forth in between films that are at best mediocre (The Host) and at worst downright atrocious (S1m0ne and In Time). The timely drone warfare film Good Kill, Niccol’s sixth directorial feature and third with Ethan Hawke (Gattaca and Lord of War) is a return to form for him.
The subject of drone warfare is a hot button topic that has many coming down on both sides of the issue. Some see it as a beneficial tool that first and foremost protects soldiers’ lives, while others view drone pilots as glorified gamers cowardly operating a joystick (one authoritative character counters that latter point by hammering home that it’s not a pixelated villain you’re aiming at, but real flesh and blood). Thankfully, Niccol touches on both of those points without taking a definitive “anti-war” or “pro-war” stance. Questions are raised about the pros and cons of its subject matter, but overall, drone piloting here is presented with “as is” honesty; it’s these characters’ job, and though not as compelling or as thought-provoking as The Hurt Locker, Niccol has the conflicts come from within his characters and not some overbearing preachy message.
It’s no surprise that we don’t get a stakes-raising sense of danger with these characters like in other war films, but Niccol deserves credit for being able to give his film a good deal of intensity through the consequences that sometimes come with the actions they take during their missions.
Niccol falters some with a few false steps. Zoe Kravitz is good as the new team recruit, but the flirtatious subplot between Suarez and Egan feels artificial and detracts some from the much more engaging subplot revolving around Egan and his wife’s strained marriage. Also, the ending, which stems from Egan and his team’s observation on two particular targets that occur more than once throughout the film, unnecessarily takes what is a strong character study for most of the film and turns it into some Death Wish style revenge flick. It’s not needed, and more so, it’s a bit predictable since after Egan’s second observation of the two, you kinda know that it’s gonna lead up to that point.
Still, the performances here are strong, and for whatever shortcomings it may have, Ethan Hawke makes up for them all, carrying this film with ease. Playing Egan with great restraint, which makes his rare outbursts all the more dramatic, Hawke effectively portrays a man who’s slowly crumbling away, and continues to just go with the motions instead of dealing with his problems. To him, the thrill is gone from his career. All he’s left with is a “chair force” position inside an air-conditioned box, and it continually eats at him. Granted, I would’ve liked a little more fleshing out of Egan’s drinking problem, but Hawke makes him a quietly compelling character regardless.
With last year’s Boyhood, January’s Predestination and this film, that now makes him three great performances separated from that God awful Getaway film.
Bruce Greenwood handles his Col. Johns with gruff authority, but avoids turning him into a stereotype by giving him a touch of conflicted grey area. Also playing what is normally a stereotypical role is January Jones in one of her finest performances as the long-suffering housewife. Jones doesn’t make Molly a nagging caricature, but refreshingly gives credibility to her suffering and frustration over her husband’s growing distance. The scenes between the two of them are some of the best in the film.
Good Kill may not rise to the level that The Hurt Locker achieved, but it’s still thought-provoking enough, and isn’t as preachy about its themes of troubled conscience as you might think it is. With some genuinely tense moments and a terrific, complex performance from Ethan Hawke that anchors the entire film, this, while imperfect, is the best film Andrew Niccol’s done in a decade since Lord of War.
I give Good Kill a B (★★★).