2015, R, 102 min. Directed by Andrew Niccol. Starring Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kravitz, Jake Abel, Kevin Wiggins, Alma Sisneros.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., June 12, 2015
The earnest drama Good Kill provocatively explores the blurred line between an act of war and an act of terrorism in this modern age of human conflict. Today, neither side may tread the higher moral ground, confounding any blind-eye view of a world solely defined by black and white hats. The battle fought in this film takes place in a cloudless sky high above the godforsaken terrain of Afghanistan, where weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles – otherwise known as “drones” – stealthily roam on missions to (using the military terminology) prosecute targets and neutralize threats on the ground below. They’re like deadly mechanized insects reimagined from a Fifties sci-fi flick, except they don’t instill a visceral fear in the pursued because they operate sight unseen, surreptitious and silent in their killing agenda.
The film clumsily debates the ethical pros and cons of this dispassionate form of warfare: Advocates justify the use of UAVs in the Middle East as a necessary means to combat an enemy capable of using children as suicide bombers or flying commercial jets into skyscrapers, while detractors view it as nothing more than terrorism at 10,000 feet. While these polemics underpin the narrative drama, the soul of Good Kill resides in the men and women who pilot this controversial weaponry halfway around the world in the confines of sterile portable buildings in a Nevada desert not too different from the arid Afghan expanse. For these virtual combatants, it’s a surreal, often debilitating experience to play this deadly game of Xbox, one in which the animated figures on the video screen are flesh and bone, and scored hits translate into actual body counts.
As the troubled pilot who yearns to fly a real plane again, Hawke is all stony expression, his face frozen like a mask that might shatter if he allowed his feelings to surface. His Major Egan may not express or show much by way of emotion, but the character’s existential despair is evident. Unfortunately, the hot-and-cold dynamic of Egan’s deteriorating marriage in director/screenwriter Niccol’s script undercuts Hawke’s performance because you never quite know where the relationship is going. Hawke’s loose (and all too brief) interactions with the actors playing his young children are in some ways more revealing than his dramatic scenes with his wife (a slightly washed-out Jones), maybe because Boyhood demonstrated his capacity as a great dad and the compassion he brings to the role of parent. Perhaps the film’s most telling moments, however, are wordless ones in which no actor appears. They’re the bird’s-eye views of American tableaux – suburban tract houses, elementary schools, interstate highways – that mimic similar sky-high perspectives just before a drone fires its missile. Are these images harbingers of things to come? It’s downright chilling to think they might be.