Review: Ethan Hawke goes numb at the controls of a deadly drone in ‘Good Kill’

Traveling back from the Toronto Film Festival meant spending a fair amount of time in airports, and in each of those airports, the same revolving barrage of news went by, including discussions of new drone missions over Syria.

It made it very unsettling as I had “Good Kill” still bouncing about inside me, one of the last movies I saw at the fest this year, and as timely a film as I could imagine seeing. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the film is a close-up character portrait of Tommy Egan, a former fighter jet pilot who has been relocated to a Las Vegas suburban neighborhood. Every day, he reports to a local base where he and his crew file into a small trailer and then spend their shift watching and occasionally killing people on the other side of the world.

At the end of their shifts, they get to go home and supposedly live a normal life, although it seems like that's not the easiest thing to do when you're dealing with the same complicated moral landscape as someone who is boots on the ground. They don't have to go tuck their children in and act like everything's normal, and when the landscape gets even more complicated, there's no real road map. No one's ever fought a war the way these wars are being fought, and there's really no way of knowing who these soldiers are going to be on the other side of things.

“Good Kill” is very small, very linear, and very ugly. Tommy would love to go back overseas and get back into the air for real, but there's no call for his former job anymore. Things are moving towards the drone model and away from the idea of putting real people in harm's way, and the rules of how that's going to work seem to be fairly liquid at this point. Tommy's unit is annexed by an unseen CIA team (our only contact is the voice of Peter Coyote over a speaker phone) and they start finding themselves pressed into more and more unpleasant service, even as they find themselves frustrated by things they see that they can't stop because it's outside the purview of their orders.

At home, Tommy's struggling to connect in any way to Molly (January Jones), his wife, but he can't do it. At least when he went away to combat, he went away and then came back. This is some sort of weird purgatory existence for Tommy, and it's starting to drive him mad. He is drunk pretty much all the time, and he only seems to really come alive to any degree when he's at the controls of his plane. Making a film about someone who is this numb, this internal, can be distancing, but that's very much the point of this, and Hawke and Jones do a tremendous job of playing this state of perpetually emotionally bruised.

Niccol made his reputation on these big high-concept films that he wrote like “Truman Show,” and there were several of them that were highly read within the industry even if they never got made. Somewhere along the way, though, he fell into the same trap that M. Night Shyamalan did, where it seemed like he was more concerned with clever than coherent. “In Time” has got to be one of the most ridiculous science-fiction movies in recent memory, where a metaphor makes no practical sense, but no one stopped to consider that before making the film.

Here, Niccol is working in a very stripped down and direct mode, and I think overall, it works. “Good Kill” is unsettling, and the entire cast does spare, unsentimental work. Jake Abel and Zoe Kravitz serve under Tommy, serving essentially as the angel and devil on his shoulders, with Bruce Greenwood as their commanding officer. Greenwood's one of the most consistently interesting grown-ups in modern movies, and he serves here as the face of frustration, a commanding officer who no longer recognizes the military around him.

From the moment the film begins, there's no doubt where it's headed, and Niccol for once isn't trying to surprise you as his one big trick. Instead, he pours most of his focus here into using perspective to show us how strange it is to be able to push a button on one side of the world and rain death on someone on the other side. Amir Mokri's photography is a huge part of that, and much of the film is spent showing us our own day-to-day normal as seen from the same POV as we use to look at people in our “enemy” countries. It's a simple and effective visual plan, and it feels to me like a strong example of Niccol's ability with actors.

“Good Kill” only has one thing on its mind, and as a result, there's nothing especially subtle about its approach. It is an angry movie, and it's not interested in pulling that punch it's throwing. It also doesn't offer any answer about the questions that it raises, and how could it? While I think there is an ethical landscape they've just started to explore involving the effects of being a drone pilot and where we should or shouldn't engage, I have a hard time being upset about the idea of taking Americans out of the actual line of fire as much as possible. “Good Kill” raises the question of whether that title can ever been meant in anything that's not an ironic manner, and the despair that Niccol finds in his answer is something I'm having a hard time shaking, even days after seeing the film.

“Good Kill” is currently seeking US distribution.