Thursday, May 28, 2015

'Good Kill' review

Drones are steeped in controversy to say the least. This intriguing new technology has the potential to do a lot of good for us, but there are the questions of ethics, Constitutional rights and just basic human dignity. Just like Ex Machina tackled artificial intelligence with a fresh spin last month, Good Kill does the same for drone strikes. It's far from a perfect film- it can be a bit repetitive and it doesn't quite have the impact that it should. But at the same time, Good Kill is a fascinating character study and one of the most compelling war films I've seen in some time. Anchored by a stellar performance from Ethan Hawke, a somber, haunting atmosphere and some extremely tense moments, Good Kill is a film that works on so many levels.

Tommy Egan (Hawke) is an esteemed Air Force Major who flew six tours during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But after a while, the Air Force doesn't need pilots- they need drone strike operators. Tommy is stationed in Las Vegas, NV and at the start of the movie, he's already starting to question his morally shady job. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) knows that drones are the future and M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer (Jake Abel) is assured that we're doing the right thing, but Tommy and his assistant, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), are less sure about things. After the Air Force team starts to conduct missions for the CIA, the gray area becomes even bigger as the civilian casualties increase.

But every night after killing droves of Taliban for the Air Force, Tommy gets to go home to his wife (January Jones) and kids. What seems like a pleasant life for a military officer begins to cause Tommy's life to completely unravel, as the moral intensity of the job starts to swarm him. Through alcohol, abuse and depression, Tommy's life becomes a living hell and he must find a way to cope with his actions and decisions to become stronger once again.

Most war films have quiet moments, but also scenes of explosive violence that will get your blood pumping. Good Kill is not that film. While Tommy's breakdown is handled with intensity, Good Kill is, for the most part, a quiet, chilling film. The soundtrack eerily channels the moral ambiguity of drone strikes and Ethan Hawke's chilly, distant performance highlights the mental wear and tear of being in a war zone by day and with your family by night. Mix that with the stunning locales of Las Vegas and the superb pacing of the film and Good Kill becomes one of the more satisfying recent war films.

Director Andrew Niccol helms Good Kill with a solemn intensity that pervades throughout every scene of the film, but he also injects an interesting political statement that will undoubtedly get people talking. Niccol contrasts the positives and negatives of drone strikes, but pretty much falls firmly on the side that drones are wrong. Bruce Greenwood's Johns and Abel's Zimmer both seem to be in favor of the strikes at different points, but even though come around to the negative side of things.

However, Niccol manages to get his message across without making everything sound super preachy. From scene one, the ethics of drone strikes are questioned, but the focus of the film is always character. Tommy Egan is a character who the audience can really care about and Hawke's performance gives extra layers to Tommy. There was never any question in my mind that Tommy was a good man. He cares about his family and wife, but his job just doesn't allow him to express that. One of the major faults of the film is that it never allows for Tommy to be a nice family guy before the drone strikes take a toll on him. Good Kill hits early and hard, with very little room for Tommy to not be an emotionally damaged mess.

But for every one of the film's failings, there's an equally stellar moment that makes Good Kill memorable. Niccol specializes in sci-fi thrillers and Good Kill definitely has that sort of tone and feel to it. Maybe it's just the Las Vegas setting or Christophe Beck's atmospheric score that mixes rock music and chilling beats well, but Good Kill felt like a unique addition to the war genre with a bit of a sci-fi twist. The film plays out like a video game movie and that's mostly because drone strikes are video games with real life consequences. That was an interesting little theme that Niccol added to the movie, and there's an absolutely perfect moment in the film where Tommy goes home and turns off his son's copy of Call of Duty. Subtle things like that mix well with the occasionally heavy-handed moralizing, making Good Kill a layered experience.

Repetition is always a problem in war movies, and Good Kill falls victim to this flaw as well. After all, how many times can you show people getting blown up by drone strikes in different scenarios before it starts to get old? Despite that repetition, Good Kill manages to vary the scenes enough that each scene feels like a big moral question that can't be answered. It's not a perfect way to solve the problems of the film, but Good Kill balances the disturbing action with enough character to get by.

Well directed and made by Niccol and led by a first class performance from Ethan Hawke, Good Kill mixes a well-developed character study with a compelling look at the controversial topic of drone strikes. It might not be the most perfect war film ever made, but the atmosphere, tone and the charismatic performances of the stars make Good Kill one to watch. Disturbing and provocative, Good Kill dips its toes into a genre that we will likely be seeing a lot of in the next few years.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Image Credits: Roger Ebert, Variety, Hollywood Reporter

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