This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
A drone pilot, desperate to get back into the air himself, starts to question the ethics of what he does when his unit is assigned to work with the CIA on increasingly destructive missions and his family life starts to take a turn for the worse.
What we thought
Good Kill is a timely, worthy, perhaps even important film that manages to tackle a complex issue with both even handedness and honesty. Unfortunately, as a piece of drama, it falls remarkably flat. The film actually never got much widespread distribution in the States and, though some have assumed that this much surely be a reflection of the film's delicate subject matter, I dare say that it's probably just because the film is a far better fit for something like the History channel than the cinema.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, a filmmaker whose better works include Gattaca and writing the Truman Show and the Terminal, clearly has his heart in the right place with Good Kill and his handling of the complex arguments around the US military's use of unmanned aircraft to spy and kill their enemies is impressive throughout. He never papers over the fact that both sides of the argument have valid points but he's also not so even handed that his general anti-drone stance doesn't come through – which is undoubtedly a wise decision that prevents the film from being more anemic than it sadly already is.
Niccol may get some fine work out of Ethan Hawke (with whom he worked on his very first film, Gattaca) as our conflicted hero, Thomas Egan, and January Jones has seldom been better as Thomas' long suffering wife, Molly, but good performances aren't quite enough to make for compelling cinema alone. And, unfortunately, while the intellectual arguments the film presents were enough to hold my interest, I was almost entirely uninvolved emotionally throughout.
And this is especially unforgiveable because, on paper, the film should tug at the old heartstrings hard and often. Whether it's showing the horrors of what these drones rain down on often innocent people or the drone's onboard camera voyeuristically capturing a rape half a world away, the film has enough shocking moments to enrage and repulse even the most stone-hearted of viewers. And yet, it doesn't. I mean, at all. However much my head registered these horrors as the horrors they so clearly are, the film utterly failed to elicit a corresponding emotion to go with it – and that's really a problem.
Worse yet, while Hawke and Jones are good in their roles, the inner conflicts and marital strife that theoretically rock both characters, both of whom are flawed but perfectly good and decent people, never really comes through. Again, it just feels more like an intellectual examination of what such emotional turmoil would look like, rather than anything that actually resonates as emotional turmoil.
A big part of the problem, to be honest, is the script. Niccol has been involved with the writing of some very fine productions and even some of his less notable works like In Time and S1m0ne have their moments but the film's characters, story and dialogue all range from blandly predictable to horribly cliched. The dialogue, in particular, is especially clunky as every syllable turns out exactly as you expect it to and every conversation plays out as something prewritten by someone with a notable lack of imagination. Again, it just feels so confronted that it's all but impossible to actually care about any of these characters, any of their stories as anything but ciphers.
All this said, though, while I don't really recommend the film as a film, it's worth checking out as an interesting discussion about a complex subject that is far more intricate than typical political partisanship likes to paint it to be. Feel free to wait to watch it at home, though.