A film review by Craig J. Koban May 21, 2015


2015, R, 114 mins.


Ethan Hawke as Commandant Tom Egan  /  January Jones as Molly Egan  /  Zoë Kravitz as Aviateur Vera Suarez  /  Jake Abel as M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer  /  Bruce Greenwood as Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns 

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

GOOD KILL is a decidedly different type of war film.  It’s not about the physical and emotional toll that soldiers go through on the ground in combat, nor is it about the hellish conditions on the battlefield.  

No, this film deals with the nagging and deeply rooted psychological effects of waging a technological war from a distance.  GOOD KILL tackles the dicey issue of America’s foreign policy in using remote controlled drones to eradicate their terrorist enemies and intelligently weighs in on the ethics of whether or not using them truly equates to a “just war.”  Beyond its thought-provoking and timely themes and enthralling character dynamics, the film is a triumphant return to form for New Zealand Oscar-nominated director Andrew Niccol, whom recently wallowed in dreadful young adult adaptation waters with THE HOST and the so-so sci-fi parable IN-TIME.  

GOOD KILL could aptly be described as a strong companion piece to Niccol’s 2005 film LORD OF WAR, his last great work that dealt with an illegal arms dealer profiting from his business at the risk of corrupting his soul.  What’s most intriguing here is how Niccol returns to that film’s themes in GOOD KILL, which also features a character entrenched in the military that begins to have a deeply troubled conscience as a direct result of his occupation.  Lately, there have been war films that seem to have forgotten about engaging in any sort of meaningful discourse about the nature of war and how combat affects troops (see AMERICAN SNIPER), but Niccol is wise enough with his screenplay to hone in – without a jingoistic spirit and with a relative unsentimental detachment  –  on the terrible consequences that a war (in its case, a technological one) can have on people that are thousands of miles away from the carnage.  What’s most chilling about GOOD KILL is the emphasis it places on the nonchalant manner that military powers can inflict casualties…and all with a joystick and the press of a button. 



Niccol is reunited with his GATTACA star Ethan Hawke and in this film he plays ex-Air Force pilot Major Thomas Egan, whom was once a maverick of the skies.  Now, he has been grounded and ostensibly uses his aviation skills in his new assignment as part of a “Chair Force,” a group that flies remote controlled drones in small, dark, air-conditioned kiosks in Nevada, which is 7000 miles away from their intended Taliban targets.  Egan is a stone cold tactician piloting his drone, which the film rightfully relays as a remarkably high tech video game.  There’s a relative casualness to which Egan aims at his targets and pulls the trigger, mostly because, when it boils right down to it, it’s all pretty impersonal when it comes to combat.  He’s simply not physically there to kill his enemy and deal with the aftermath.  Part of his duties, though, involves “damage assessment,” which is a euphemism.  In his own words, “It’s our way of saying 'counting the dead'.  Which is not as easy as it sounds because a lot of the times the bodies are in small pieces.” 

Even though Egan is an expert in his field and is ruthlessly effective in his new assignment, something just seems…off…about him.  He frequently pleads with his commanding officer (a reliably stalwart and effective Bruce Greenwood) to get him back into an actual cockpit, which mostly falls on deaf ears, seeing as his CO doesn’t want to lose an asset such as Egan in the drone program.  There’s an eerie scene early in the film that’s kind of masterful in its simplistic execution, featuring Greenwood’s military leader speaking to a new squadron of potential drone recruits.  In a wonderful written monologue, he goes on to relay to the cadets the importance of the drone program, but he also emphasizes the critical backlash that such a program also has in the public eye.  Virtuoso speeches like this reflect why Greenwood is a criminally underrated actor. 

Egan’s life on the home front is not helping him either.  His marriage to Molly (a natural and poised January Jones) is on the rocks, mostly because of the long and grueling hours that he puts in at his job (and one that he refuses to discuss with his wife).  That, and Egan is a heavy drinker that uses alcohol, I suppose, to numb away his guilt for indiscriminately killing countless people, some of which include innocent civilians.  An accidental kill shot of his that does murder a child early in the film hits him hard, but what makes matters worse for him is when the CIA steps in and takes control of the program and orders him and his superiors to commit kills where the preponderance of guilt in the targets is potentially questionable.  When Egan is ordered to eliminate targets in other countries that the US is not even at war with, he truly begins to question the righteousness and morality of his profession. 

Hawke is just the right actor for this material.  He gives a deeply internalized and anguished performance that gives the already thematically complex film a whole other layer of compelling nuance (even potential cookie-cutter scenes of domestic strife that he has with Jones have an unpredictable and palpable edge to them).  Much like Hawke’s lean and spare performance, Niccol’s overall aesthetic here is equally economical by design.  A majority of the film takes place in military offices and drone control bunkers and Niccol does a brilliant job of evoking the confined and claustrophobic conditions of Egan’s working conditions.  He juxtaposes the dimly lit and semi-soul-crushing confines of these kiosks with the startling triviality of suburban life for Egan back home.  He lives in one of those neatly designed blocks where every house and front and back yard looks identical.  Egan lives a compartmentalized life both at home and at work, which only adds fuel to his increasing self-doubt and anxieties. 

Best of all, GOOD KILL has the tenacity to tackle troubling questions about the modern military industrial complex without condescending down to the audience by directly answering them.  The gulf between actual combat and drone combat has greatly skewed the perception of what makes a “just war” in society.  Obviously, there’s a case to be made that Egan being in a fighter plane and littering his targets with bombs and machine gun fire is not fundamentally different than piloting a drone (both are killing from a distance).  Killing is killing, whether it is with a gun on the battlefield or a cluster missile from a jet.  Yet, there’s a whole other case to be made about the relative ease by which states-sponsored drones paint targets with their reticules and pull the trigger to eradicate them without fully knowing who they are or what their real motives may entail.  Drone warfare offers up a new series of endless grey-area quandaries.  At one point Egan kills dozens of targets in a bunker – with heavy collateral damage – and then is ordered by the CIA to bomb the group funeral of the dead because of the possibility of terrorist targets being present there.  At this stage, Eagan begins to rightfully ask himself what’s the difference between the violence he perpetrates and the violent acts committed in the past by those he kills. 

GOOD KILL is perhaps a bit too short at 90-plus minutes to thoroughly examine its ideas and themes.  That, and it really winds itself down to an abrupt conclusion that tries to wrap up a subplot between Egan and his wife that’s way too neat and unbelievably tidy for its own good.  Yet, I was so enthralled by the whole build up of the movie to this point that I’m willing to forgive such indiscretions.  GOOD KILL places prominence on the dehumanizing effects of the war on terror, which is certainly a theme that’s been explored in other genre films before.  Unlike other examples, though, it examines the nature of the target and the attacker and dares to question whether or not drone warfare is just another war option or if it’s a larger part of a damning and unending cycle of violence.  There are no easy answers here, and Niccol’s film, like many great and contemplative war films, displays its disturbed mindset front and center. 

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