‘Good Kill’ Review: He’s Just Not That Into UAVs
Good Kill isn’t the same old war movie: it’s two of them. Sure, there are plenty of films about soldiers losing their soul on the battlefield, and plenty of films about soldiers returning home with post-traumatic stress disorders, but when you’re a drone pilot, writer/director Andrew Niccol argues, both stories play out at the same time. You go off to war during the day, you go home to your wife and family at night, and you leave dissatisfied in both directions.
Speaking of dissatisfaction, neither of those stories work very well in Good Kill, because despite the admirably high concept this is just a film about emotional turmoil, and emotions aren’t always Andrew Niccol’s strong suit. His best screenplays (Gattaca, The Truman Show) take heavy intellectual concepts and dramatize them like nobody’s business, but in his more melodramatic films – like The Host and Good Kill – the characters only seem truly alive when they’re considering the many possibilities of the plot, and not when they’re actually responding to it.
So we get many dramatic shots of Ethan Hawke looking grim and pained in Good Kill, but the real passion emerges from the philosophical debates between drone pilots about whether they’re killing terrorists or just making new ones. The dialogue moves faster in these scenes, and the tensions really start to mount, and then Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) goes home to his wife (January Jones) to play out their old fashioned relationship drama with lots of force but very little investment. He won’t talk about his feelings, she really wishes that he would, he starts to drink, she threatens to leave, will he ever open up?
It’s all well and good to tell the same old stories, since the same old stories remain perfectly valid, but missing an opportunity like this is a pity. Good Kill had the potential to be a new story about a new kind of warfare and a new kind of soldier. By focusing on the old kind of soldier, getting phased out by the establishment and left uncertain about his place in the world, Andrew Niccol seems to have reduced his storytelling options to a familiar midlife crisis that doesn’t benefit from the context of sitting down, watching a screen and occasionally clicking a button to kill somebody. He seems far more invested in the politics, philosophies and internal conflict of Hawke’s younger co-stars (Zoe Kravitz, Jake Abel) than he does in his moody 44-year-old protagonist, and Good Kill just doesn’t get much mileage out of Hawke’s performance as a result.
In the end, the only thing to take away from Good Kill is that the gamification of war is pretty boring. Life and death struggles are now reduced to a top-down shooter with only one helpless opponent. You win by pressing “X.” The only danger is malaise. Whatever intrigue Niccol ladles onto the military plot goes nowhere, and has no worldly consequence. Whatever human drama can take place on the sidelines feels perfunctory, and sad. War used to be Hell. Now it’s just Purgatory.