by Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
Ethan Hawke lends his tortured face to the despairing former fighter pilot Major Tom Egan in Good Kill, a drama about drone warfare. Although an experienced soldier, he finds it hard to treat blowing people up like a normal day job, driving home from the army base every evening to throw barbecue parties and help his children with their schoolwork. Superficially he can’t complain: At least he gets to see his family at all, and he isn’t risking his life in this war. But that is exactly what drives him deeper and deeper into despair.
Every day, Tom and his crew sit in a container in the Nevada desert, controlling drones 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan, Yemen or Pakistan, sending death from one desert to another. They wait, they receive orders to kill, they pull the trigger, they count the bodies. Some of his crew seem to enjoy this video-game-like process, but mostly it is depicted as boring, repetitive and completely removed from the fact that they are killing real people. To make matters worse, their command is taken over by the CIA (the film is set in 2010), who give them increasingly dubious orders to blow up just about anyone who wears an AK74 or cleans up the dead after an explosion, with no qualms about “collateral damage”.
Visually, Good Kill transports the claustrophobia of their container base, the detachment from the war, and the absurdity of remote warfare very effectively. For long sequences, the camera adopts the drone’s perspective of just watching Afghan villagers go about their daily lives from above, which makes for very repetitive and boring viewing. The disassociation works just as well on the viewers as it does on the soldiers involved. This is complemented by air shots of Tom’s outside life, amplifying the similarities between the Nevada and the Afghan landscapes.
This makes the more conventional filming whenever Tom interacts with his family seem out of place, which is of course exactly what is supposed to happen. And, for all its merits in conveying some of the effects of an absurd war, this is the problem with Good Kill: It makes it much too obvious what you are supposed to feel. Director Andrew Niccol has a message and he tells it. And he doesn’t spend too much time developing any of its characters, not even Tom himself. He is just your stereotypical righteous soldier who starts to doubt the fact that increasingly random air raids are “saving American lives” as the crew are constantly telling themselves. Then there is young female recruit Suarez (Zoë Kravitz), whose only two personality traits seem to be her conscience and a crush on Tom, and finally, two simple-minded blokes who get off on playing hero with a joystick. Add a sad and serious colonel and a disappointed wife, and this is how deep the characters get.
The other reason why Good Kill is still compelling, apart from the impressive visual language, is the acting by both Ethan Hawke and January Jones as his wife. He acts mainly with his face, which contorts into all levels of distress and misery, making his downfall very personal and relatable. Although Jones’ character is one-dimensional, she delivers one of the most captivating scenes of the film with her drunk I’m-leaving-you speech.
Good Kill is very calm and quiet, and thereby probably setting the pace and sound of the drone-era war film: No dirt, no blood, no sounds of explosions. Only disquietingly silent images building up to a growing feeling of unease.
On general release from Friday 10th April.