War and combat have made long strides since the days when it would take you a couple of minutes to reload your musket for the next shot. Now we have biological weapons, atomic bombs and flying, pilotless fighter planes that can be remote-controlled from anywhere in the world, AKA drones. Much like a Call of Duty of the same name, modern warfare has become less about troops’ physical battleground and more about virtual or digital weapons being fired remotely. The entire battle could be on-screen, where you control your pawn as if you were playing a video game. It’s a shame when the subject of modern warfare is weighed down by the same platitudes we hear every time we see a war film, but Good Kill reminds us that the message is still as important as ever, especially now.
Even if drone warfare isn’t the future, it certainly is the present in the based-on-a-true-story film. Thomas Egan is a husband, a father, and a soldier whose experience consisted of being a fighter pilot, but now only consists of remotely handling an aircraft. Despite not being in direct combat, the burn out rate is high because of the demanding and brutal nature of the missions. After his partner (deliberately) fails his drug test, he gets a young, fresh-off-the-simulator partner named Vera (Zoë Kravitz). It’s commonplace that after a specific target is destroyed, you have to confirm it by saying the oxymoronic phrase “good kill.” There is nothing good about the kills, as Thomas and Vera start to realize. As soldiers, they must follow all orders given to them, even the orders come from a disembodied voice of a CIA agent talking to you on speaker-phone. The high civilian casualty count is starting to weigh on them, but Thomas is taking it the worst. Already having faced some unresolved psychological traumas from his previous tours, he tries self-medicating with alcohol. That only adds further strain to his marriage and the already rocky relationship with his wife Molly (January Jones), who is feeling isolated in their one-sided partnership. Every relationship and every person has a breaking point, and with both his wife Molly and commanding officer Jack (Bruce Greenwood) each demanding more of him, he eventually can only explode.
Writer/Director Andrew Niccol teams up once again with Ethan Hawke to show us another character study on the ravages of war. The story wouldn’t have the same effect if the character of Thomas hadn’t served as a pilot and then become a drone operator. From that, we can get one person’s perspective from both sides. On one side, there are the pro’s that drone warfare keeps more soldiers from losing their lives since they aren’t in direct combat. The downside with drones is that the operator may treat the entire thing like a video game, and not consider how important of a decision taking a life is. With a 10 second gap from when the missile is launched to when the missile lands, anything can happen, so a pilot is preferred for last-minute decisions. The capacity for great good can come from drones, but we also see the dark side where they can be abused for lawless, borderless purposes that usually results in a high civilian death count. Niccol’s clearly tells you what side you should be on. More importantly, Niccol’s uses the this character study to show up the effects this type of warfare has (or should have) on the operators doing the shooting. Being based on true events makes the film just that more shocking and relevant.
Ethan Hawke has had a great year, and this film is no exception. His descent into depression and despondency, stemming from some partially unresolved PTSD from his previous tours, seems natural, subtle and very effective. The chemistry between Hawke and his on-screen wife Jones perfectly embodies the slow decay of their relationship, like what we have seen in many post-war films. Niccol’s paints the picture of their life together by having them reveal it (and the frequency of their sex) through conversation rather than flashbacks. This wouldn’t be a Niccol’s film without some kind of moral compass, and that would come in the form of Zoë Kravitz. In most films, Kravitz typically plays a marginalized character who we either don’t see enough of, or we see too much, but hardly has any lines. Good Kill marks the best role she has had to date. In it, she is compelling and memorable, which is a great step up from anything she has done in the past.
Good Kill is an engaging and impressively persuasive film dealing with the (dystopian) future of warfare. The approach has a slight banality to it from having been previously bombarded with the same messages and cautionary tales in previous films about war. Thanks to great performances from Hawke, Jones and Kravitz, the messages in this film prove to be worth repeating.
RATING: ★★★★★★(6/10 stars)