And so JDIFF came to an end in the Savoy, or at least it did for me, with the festival’s annual tradition of the surprise film. A packed house waited expectantly to see what the festival organisers had come up with, in a slot that usually showcases a preview screening for a film to be released properly sometime in the not too distant future. When the title came up, I could honestly say that the reaction was a mix of confusion and snorts of derision, based on the lack of knowledge of the film, and its apparent subject matter.
Drone warfare is one of the hot button morality topics of our time, and is an area ripe for storytelling, these machines being at the very forefront of vast changes in the manner that wars and military action are carried out. But there’s always the risk that such stories will fall into a pit of cliché and overdone military tropes. Having delivered a really searing look at the arms trade in 2005’s Lord of War, could director Andrew Niccol do the same with another sub-topic of modern military reality? I caught a screening of Good Kill at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) is tasked with sending missile strikes against targets in the Middle-East. But his fighter pilot days are done: he’s a drone operator stationed in a base just outside Las Vegas, who goes home to the suburbs after work. Depressed by the apparent end of his actual flying career and pressured by the moral haziness of his actions with drones, his mental state spirals out of control, to the concern of his long suffering wife Molly (January Jones) and his commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood).
Good Kill is just a failure on too many levels, but it’s in two main aspects that it really lets itself down. In the first, it’s a film about drone warfare. We should have a taut, emotional look at what that entails, and an attempt to avoid well worn tropes that have been employed on every new aspect of military existence. Instead, it’s the same old thing: moral ambiguity piled on moral ambiguity, the same tired debate played out between numerous characters about issues like civilian casualties and double strikes and, at one point, a truly laughable moment when the people giving the orders devolve into a state of childlike pettiness and cruelty (see below). I don’t think that Good Kill, in its drone sections, depicts anything that hasn’t actually happened or maybe is happening right now. But here, in this medium, the lack of effort in casting a new perspective or approaching the issue from a new angle is as obvious as it is frustrating.
That whole thing isn’t helped by the actual characters in the bunker. You’ve got the liberally minded young woman who has serious misgivings about what they are doing and tosses around words like “war crime” with ease. You’ve got the young gung-ho male soldier who just wants to blow up some bad guys. And you’ve got the commander in the middle, straddling the line and trying to keep the peace. That commander is alright, but the rest feel so one-sided, so one-note, that you never really feel anything for them, their struggle or their debates. It’s like watching a few 14 year olds discuss the complex morality of drone strikes, while their dad watches on with detached interest.
Good Kill tries to balance this out with the other part of the story, a character study of Hawke’s Egan. But that too is rarely satisfying. Maybe it’s just because the nature of the role meant that Hawke had to bottle up his established acting talent, maybe it’s because the character, as a morose, self-pitying individual, just wasn’t all that engaging, but either way, Egan can’t carry the audiences interest. In a way, he’s a good representation of a soldier whose private fears and quandaries are pushed down so deep as to cause reverberating damage to his psyche. But I think there are ways to portray that which are more interesting, story wise and visually, than what Andrew Niccol came up with here. Like the drone warfare sections, I simply found Egan dull. Quiet, intense characters don’t have to be dull. Tom Hank’s Captain Miller was quiet, had issues and was intense, but that actor in that role was able to make something magnificent out of those elements, with the right amount of help from the director I presume.
With such a poor character to play around with, Hawke needed the family members around him to step it up, but they just can’t. Egan’s tired personal struggle is matched by his tired marriage struggle, as his wife deals with being the stay at home army mom, and his kids barely make any impact on the story at all. Egan is lost at sea away from where he wants to be but still actively participating in the war, but the family drama that is put next to that is as cliché as they come. Wife who complains that he isn’t really there? Check. Problems with the sex life? Check. Alcohol abuse? Check. Suspicions that the wife is having an affair? Check. Mirror smashing? Check. Staring off into space while wife talks to you? Check. You can take a few glances at the Egan family life plot in Good Kill and be capable of writing out what happens in the rest of the film. Again, it isn’t so much that what is being depicted here doesn’t happen or isn’t representative of reality. It’s that this reality has been represented so many times before, that this is just a hockey retreading.
Female characters should be the lynchpins of both strands of the plot, but wife Molly and fellow drone pilot Suarez just don’t really cut it. Molly is so stereotypical as to be little more than a moving prop (not helped by the performance) and Suarez, while a little more interesting, can’t really get far beyond her status as a living embodiment of anti-drone feeling.
Egan lurches around the film, between the standard scenarios in the cockpit, the arguments with the wife and the temptation with the new pretty girl at the office. Good Kill presents a fairly miserable story, one that fails to engage. But what is worst, perhaps, is the nature of its ending, which flip reverses the tone egregiously and suddenly. I’ll discuss it more in a moment, but for those avoiding spoilers, it suffices to say that Good Kill’s ending is unsatisfying by its very nature: a complete change of the established tone of the film, and a turnaround on the journey of the Egan character, where the larger discussion on drone morality, the deep seeded problems with the wife and Egan’s own mental problems, are all wrapped up in neat little packages.
Good Kill lacks any coherent final message on drone warfare, if the people going to see it are seeking one. Much like in the way Foxcatcher failed to properly address the mindset of its antagonist, or, more pertinently, Zero Dark Thirty failed to properly address the issue of torture, so does Good Kill fail to offer a firm opinion on its central issue, and that grates a bit for me. Take a stance, yay or nay, but don’t sit on this fence like you’re some kind of documentarian just presenting an issue and leaving it to the audience. Good Kill is a movie: a fictional one, and one where a more firm landing on either side of the divide would have resonated with audiences far more. Certainly, I think that Good Kill presenting a more overtly positive or overtly negative view on drone strikes would have engaged me more, even if it ran contrary to my own personal opinions. And that might be the most disappointing aspect of Good Kill’s story.
Ethan Hawke can do better, and has had better roles, than this. Egan is just too much of a blank slate, too dour, and too limited, for Hawke to bring the goods from the Before/After trilogy into the role. He’s a bog standard traumatized soldier, and I just couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for watching him.
And the rest of the cast is struggling through as well. Jones is mostly bad in the wife role, going through the motions and creating no chemistry, positive or negative, with the man playing her husband. Zoe Kravitz and Jake Abel make up the sock puppets in the drone container, neither up to all that much. Bruce Greenwood at least manages to stand out, in a role not exactly a million miles away from Star Trek’s Pike, as the commander who is pushing himself through the haze of what he and his soldiers must accomplish, even as he promotes the use of drones. The scenes between him and Hawke in his office are probably the film’s best. Hawke does better when he is paired with someone who knows what he is doing.
On the visual side of things, Good Kill is nothing special. The film has obviously not been made with anything approaching even a mid-sized budget. The sets, be they the air base or Egan’s home, are threadbare and lacking a “lived-in” feel, everything being far too sterile in look. The direction isn’t up to the job of picking up the slack either: the drone videos are as you would expect, detached from the reality of what they are depicting but getting rather dull as the film moves on. At no point could I saw that any of Amir Mokri’s shots wowed me, and the attempts to create a few – that awkwardly slated sex scene, Egan staring out into the sky late on or the contrast between the drone crates and actual airplanes – largely failed to land. I will give credit for one thing though, which was the overhanging shots of the suburbia where Egan lives, obviously trying to give us a look of such places as if a drone was up in the sky looking at them. The point is suitably subtle and well made. You only wish the rest of the film had been so smart.
Such as Niccol’s script for instance. Bruce Greenwood’s remarks on drone warfare at the beginning sort of suck you in, but after that it’s the same old tired evocations of drone arguments, coming from the mouths of strawmen. The CIA guy on the phone rapidly approaches cartoonish at times. The dialogue between Egan and is wife is wooden and lifeless. Though it has potential, it’s essentially the same between Egan and Suarez, when it should be diametrically opposed. Egan’s monologue on his dissatisfaction with his current posting is just dull. No one else sounds right, or speaks as they should speak. Looking back a few weeks removed, I can barely remember any lines from this film really, other than Hawke’s repeated “Rifled”.
Some brief spoiler talk follows
-I wasn’t kidding about the “cartoonish” thing. Upon their second attempt at sending a secondary strike at a target being taken away by the actions of Egan, the CIA guys on the phone just start mindlessly cursing, like they’re really, really annoyed at not getting to hit another pregnant woman.
-The film’s final act climaxes with Egan taking matters into his own hands and launching an unauthorised strike at a serial rapist his crew have been observing. The act is depicted as an unequivocal good, and Egan even gets to walk away afterward. Only it isn’t: it’s a soldier going AWOL at the controls of a killing machine, and making the decision about who lives and dies while suffering from a depressive episode aggravated by a bout of alcoholism.
-The ending with the family/wife sub-plot, with Egan taking off to go hook up with them outside of town, was so inane as to be genuinely irritating. What a flip reversal that was. Goodbye depression, alcoholism, tortuous psychological quandaries. Let’s just flip a switch and get rid of them.
-The stuff with Suarez was potentially interesting, but the way it veered away from the apparent course it was taking was a bit strange. You can’t show a guy in emotional turmoil like this, ridden with mental problems and tempted to cheat on his wife, and then just click your fingers and change everything when the credits are upon you.
-The message about drones you take away from Good Kill seems to be mostly that they are a simple reality that isn’t going away, a tool that the US military, and other militaries, will continue to use. Egan feels terrible that he is no longer in a cockpit, since at least then the guy on the ground has a chance of firing back. The only thing that has really changed is the guy in the cockpit isn’t there anymore. Egan can feel bad, and the viewer can feel bad, but with no outright condemnation or support of drone strikes to mark the film out, all I can see in the drone sections is an overplayed reality: that in hitting terrorist/insurgent/enemy/whatever targets, other people die too.
I think that Good Kill was trying to be some kind of sibling to American Sniper – a film I haven’t seen but have heard enough about to believe the comparison is credible – in so far as it is about a brooding angst-filled war hero struggling to adapt to the situation back home, between the civvie life and the spouse and the reality of things in a suburban landscape. But so much of Good Kill just fails that the film can’t cobble together something worth watching. The script is very weak, the direction lacks punch, none of the cast are really covering themselves in glory, Hawke and Jones most of all, and the general story is a humdrum thing you’ll have seen many times before in different guises. And, much like Zero Dark Thirty before it, it can’t muster enough courage to really come down on one side or the other of the hot button topic at its heart, which really kills any interest it may have been able to engender. There was a better film to be made with these varying elements, and it’s a pity Niccol couldn’t pull it all together. As JDIFF’s “surprise”, I have to say that it was an unwelcome one. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of IFC Films).