Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: "Good Kill"

Director: Andrew Niccol
Runtime: 102 minutes

In terms of subject matter, director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) could not have chosen a more timely arena for his latest film: drone warfare. Unmanned craft (especially the weaponized form) are political and ethical lightning rods, and not without reason. If you've heard of them, you likely have some strong opinions about how they should and shouldn't be used. If only Niccol's film was as stirring as the debate it wades into. Good Kill, though a marked improvement over Niccol's recent films, is affecting for brief moments, but mostly succumbs to either listlessness or misjudged melodrama (or both).

At the heart of Good Kill's moral queasiness is Maj. Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke), a former pilot who now spends his days cramped inside a metal box on a Las Vegas airbase. Inside said metal box is the high-tech ground control for drones operating thousands of miles away. Without ever risking a crash (or even being detected), Egan and his teammates are able to take out targets as they please with brutal efficiency. 

Yet the drones' all-seeing eyes can cause more stress than one might think. Early on, Egan and his commander (Bruce Greenwood), watch helplessly as a woman in Pakistan's Waziristan region is raped by a neighbor (a neighbor who may or may not be an insurgent). Since the drones' only weapons are missiles, there's nothing that can be done to stop the horrific act, even though Egan and co. are the only outsiders bearing witness to the woman's suffering. Scenes like this get Good Kill off to a solid start, promising something of a variation on The Hurt Locker in regards to depicting the thornier aspects of military life. The life of drone pilots is one of much greater contrast than that of a foot soldier. At the end of his shift, Tommy drives a few miles to a wife (January Jones) and two kids. He gets to fight the allegedly good fight with no more than some simple clicks in an air-conditioned room.

Though the personal advantages of this sort of work are obvious, Tommy begins to doubt the integrity of his orders once the CIA enters the fray. With Langley suddenly calling the shots via conference call, there's a new layer of disassociation added to Tommy's supposedly necessary strikes. Instead of conferring with other people face to face before lighting up a target, he now takes orders from the cryptic bureaucratic droning of a voice coming out of a headset. The CIA spokesman's voice, combined with Niccol's eerily tight shots of the phoneset's red speaker light, call to mind a white collar HAL9000. Sure, the drone is an impersonal weapon, but more than any other soldier committing morally questionable acts, it really was just following orders. 

The CIA's orders, which push Egan and his team beyond their comfort zones on a regular basis, are the beginning of Egan's unravelling. But rather than build momentum, Niccol's script starts to flail. One early confrontation between Hawke and Jones plays out with a level of intensity that makes one wonder if the scene was actually supposed to come near the end of the film. Later developments don't fare much better. Once Tommy finally opens up to his wife, he spills his guts so rapidly that you'll wonder if you zoned out and accidentally missed some transitional scenes. 

Niccol's visual style doesn't do much to amplify his interior story. Camera work and editing are solid during the drone sessions, but everything else is scattershot. Due to filters and/or color correction, Good Kill often looks unpleasantly oversaturated. And when the frame isn't filled with synthetic coloring, it's draped in some oppressive shadows. Nighttime scenes in Tommy's bedroom look like they belong in a bad noir, with only ugly bursts of orange light breaking up the darkness. And Tommy's aforementioned confessions to his wife play out in a bizarre, stilted pastoral shot that has Hawke and Jones stand side-by-side like they're delivering lines for an experimental piece of theater. 

Beyond its subject matter, Good Kill is also a waste of some perfectly talented actors. Mr. Hawke's performance stumbles here and there, but that mostly comes down to Niccol's writing and direction. For the most part, Hawke does a good job with the wounded stoic routine, making Egan's journey coherent and convincing, even when the film lurches from one IMPORTANT development to the next. Although even Hawke is left powerless by the tastelessness of the final scene, which wants to give Good Kill's protagonist a heroic moment while completely ignoring the ramifications of his actions so many miles away. Meanwhile Jones, though seriously miscast opposite someone of Hawke's age (is it that hard to find someone age appropriate?), is actually quite good with her role as the put-upon wife trying to hold onto her marriage. Egan's military peers, top-lined by Greenwood and Zoe Kravitz, do nice work as well, especially the latter. One can only imagine what they all might have accomplished had they been in the hands of a script that dared to be more than thinly-sketched portrait of one of modern warfare's most polarizing advancements. 

Grade: C

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