Andrew Niccol, director of good films like Gattaca and god-awful ones like The Host (2013), puts us in the shoes of the “enemy” throughout Good Kill. By hoisting his camera skywards to capture aerial views of a deserty Americana suburban sprawl, he draws aesthetic parallels to the dusty spread of Middle Eastern hovels his characters are occupied bombing and blasting. By directing our attention to these blatant visual comparisons between the slates of inconspicuous Vegas neighborhoods and the tactical POV of high-flying drones drifting above unsuspected, Niccol’s invades our sense of docility, in a somewhat subtle attempt to plant us in harm’s way and daring to jolt us into action and ultimately caring.
In this capacity, his film is a quiet triumph. So too is Ethan Hawke’s low-broiling performance as a war pilot grounded for reasons unknown and forced to instead pilot drones from an air-conditioned cubicle like a pimply teenager with a rumblepack joystick. His reticent desperation unfurls two-fold: at work with prodding pleas to his commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood) to be return to a real fighter jet and at home where his day job (worked during the graveyard shift) of “engaging hostiles” stands in sharp contract to swilling PBR and grilling porterhouses on a Kenmore 4 top.
The film capitalizes on this brand of muted shock-value; the cold, hard cavalier nature of these drone strikes prove as gut-churning as the unsettlingly high number of strikes each pilot is asked to carry out daily; but it sometimes leaves the blood wanting more stirring. Quite simply: strong visual cues, performances served with gusto and a solid moral foundation do not a perpetually enjoyable movie make.
Niccol’s charge to churn the position of drone pilot into a harrowing, supremely unenviable position is an uphill battle but one he engages full-throttle. On the one hand, these drone pilots are perceived as militant sissies, sitting out the real battles where honor is won and lives are risked. Though Hawke’s Major Thomas Egan finds his post undesirable, it’s not for lack of action. In fact, these drone pilots appear to engage the enemy continuously. How the kill count statistics for actual pilots versus drone pilots break down I don’t know but Good Kill would lead us to believe that the drone pilots trigger finger is nothing short of a biblical harbinger of death, ten thousand miles away. They collect belt notches by the dozen and then zip off to another strike point. All on one tank of gas.
This gets us into post-traumatic stress, which Egan is forced to content with throughout the picture. His PTSD is exacerbated when the CIA take charge of their command post to execute undocumented tactical strikes that put innocent women and children into the crosshairs and don’t hesitate to issue a kill order. In all senses, the disembodied talking heads painstakingly demand the loss of civilian life. Over and over again. Cue Die Antwoord; “Kill, kill, kill!” Niccol’s is unflinching in his portrait of government intelligence indifference, painting the faceless American commanders as nothing short of bloodthirsty war pigs. At times his irreverence to US command structure seems over-the-top but taken in the context of Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars, his excess seems hardly exaggerated, rather it’s an illuminating necessary evil.
Taking us into these dark shadows, Niccol’s attempts to parse right from wrong with almost too much force, leaving very little grey in between. The sad truth of the matter is that the Middle East is a palette of greys and his ethical absolutism can come across a touch obtuse. Similarly, Egan’s home life rubs against a thing of caricature and though Hawke dedicates himself to his character’s crumbling, the alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies are cinematic redundancies of the cliched war-battered men returning home from battle. Had Hawke had a better counterpoint to bounce off of than January Jones – who always underwhelms – his frustration and eagerness to desert his family might have held a more palpable bite. As it stands, her nagging is just that and without the requisite depth to really spearhead our undivided investment in their familial struggles. When the end comes around the corner, our character makes a decision completely outside the realm of expectation and it falls short exactly because of our detachment from the nuclear unit that is Hawke & Jones.
Ultimately, Niccol’s has made a film that probes cinematic rocks previously left unturned and does so in fairly compelling manner. Most of the time. He unearths the occasional scene dripping with tension but also allows a sluggish breeze of non-movement to creep in now and again. If only he knew, the film thrives in the quietest of moments; when Egan questions why they still wear flight suits; when his drone block smokes cigarettes and hold dopey Ooh Rah philosophy seminars. Niccol’s effort is commendable – as is his longing to make a war drama that’s both timely and brimming with cause – but the bits and bops don’t always come together smoothly, a pang of shortcoming felt especially in the big dramatic family moments.