Good Kill has a lot to say, and the conviction to say it loudly, but gets lost in a series of predictable plot points.
Good KillDirector: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoe Kravitz
Studio: Voltage Pictures
US Release date: 2015-09-01
“Good Kill” is a line said by protagonist Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawk) after Egan and team successfully take out an enemy combatant through the use of drone technology. It's a line repeated several times throughout the film's 102-minute runtime. Unfortunately, it's not the only thing about the film that gets repeated ad nauseam.
The entirety of Good Kill is largely a retread for writer/director Andrew Niccol, a prime example being lead actor Ethan Hawke, who has now appeared in three of the seven films in Niccol’s filmography. Good Kill also rehashes many of the themes in some of his most successful ventures.
Niccol burst on the scene with 1997’s Gattaca, which imagined a future of genetically engineered humans. From there he continued to explore how the future, namely technology and how humans interact with technology, can sometimes take scary and unforeseen turns. The Truman Show (1998), S1mone (2002) and to a lesser extent In Time (2011) all take these ideas to their extreme with skill and success. These are not perfect films, but one can't say in good conscience say they're not imaginative. That is why Niccol’s most recent work, largely an exploration of terrifying technology in the modern age, is so disappointing in its banality.
For a film whose DVD cover hails itself as “the thinking person’s answer to American Sniper”, Good Kill almost immediately breaks the first rule of smart filmmaking by telling rather than showing. This betrays the promise of the opening scene, which does a lot more showing then telling. We open with quick cuts between an extreme close-up on Egan’s face and the view from his unmanned aircraft flying over Afghanistan. We soon learn that Egan is one of the expert pilots of the new drone weaponry, and although he is thousands of miles from his targets, he is the tip of the spear for the American assault on terrorism.
This dichotomy is interesting and intriguing, but it's also obvious. That is why is so frustrating that the first lines out of Egan’s mouth after, “Good Kill” are “Blew away six Taliban in Pakistan just today, now I’m going home to barbeque.” So there it is, the entire theme of Good Kill summarized by its main character about three minutes in.
What we do learn is that Egan is a former fighter pilot, a real one who did six tours of duty oversees and is now in the midst of his third, piloting drones from the safety of his home base in Las Vegas. He's married and has two small children, one boy and one girl, whom we see very little of throughout the film.
His wife, Molly (January Jones) is so one-sided and trite that she serves as merely the nagging voice in Egan’s head, which reminds him of how so much has changed since his days as a jet pilot. The side-plot of marital issues is so predictable that it becomes mere filler from Jones’ opening line in which she inaudibly answers the question, “Do you need anything?” with “Yeah I do.” She needs love and just a little attention, and we know from that point on she will get neither.
The real conflict will be internal as Egan fights with his demons as each and every drone mission becomes more morally questionable than the prior one, especially after the mysterious voice known only as “Langley” begins to give the orders. Much of the film’s action takes place in the control room where they perform these missions. Egan and his team, which include such boring archetypes as the brutish, war-hungry males and the lone sensitive, considerate female, carry out countless missions to eradicate “threats to America.”
Though these scenes are repetitive, they're actually the most exciting. The views we see of a vague Middle-Eastern country come exclusively from the drones, giving us the kind of eerie emotional distance that is inherent in these types of attacks. The music crescendos each time Egan and crew get closer to releasing the bomb and eliminating their targets. This adds some white knuckle moments, but overall Niccol goes to the well too many times and we become just as tired as Egan of “taking pot shots a world away from an air-conditioned cubicle.”
Egan begins an expected downward spiral into despair, taking swigs from his bottle of vodka regularly and increasingly ignoring Molly. In one of the more stirring scenes one of Egan’s benders takes him to the front of a Las Vegas mosque, weapon in hand and ready to take action against someone who can actually fight back. Despite the obvious flaw in his thinking this idea makes sense for his character. He feels like a coward, a coward who's constantly told that what he is doing is righteous despite the fact that he constantly kills civilians and even children during his attacks.
Egan eventually makes a final stand against the injustice he sees within his profession, but this act of heroism ultimately comes too late to save the film, or our interest. Niccol clearly has something to say about the state of modern warfare in Good Kill and he says it with conviction. It's just that what he has to say is not necessarily a hot take on the subject, and the story plays out so predictably and with such a lack of subtlety that the message becomes muddled in monotony.
The Special Features section of the Good Kill DVD provides only a behind the scenes featurette, which simply shows shots from behind the camera while some of the main stars and writer/director Andrew Niccol recap and discuss the film’s narrative. They also delve into the accuracy of the technology and warfare used throughout the movie, which shows that the team did ample research.