You know when you see a movie, and you don’t hate it, but you don’t love it, either? You’d recommend that other people see it, you guess, but asked to explain why, you can’t really muster up any passion or enthusiasm. The Ethan Hawke movie that came out this weekend is like that. It’s not a great kill. It’s not an awful kill. It’s a… Good Kill.
*insert that ba-doom-tiss .gif you guys always use. Yeah, you know the one.*
In Good Kill, Hawke plays Major Thomas Eagan, a career military man and ex-pilot who now flies drones from a base on the outskirts of Las Vegas. When the movie starts, his job has already begun to take a toll on him, the dichotomy of being a husband and father who bombs terrorists (and, occasionally, civilians) as his nine-to-five doing a number on his head. Things only get worse when Eagan’s team is reassigned to the CIA, and their new big boss—represented only as a disembodied voice issuing orders on speakerphone—starts to get a lot more free and easy when it comes to the requirements for ordering a missile strike. Eagan’s alcohol intake increases, and his relationship with his wife Molly (January Jones), with whom he refuses to discuss the psychological strain his job is putting on him or his doubts about the morality of his orders, rapidly deteriorates.
Good Kill has racked up modest buzz since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last September; since then, it’s made stops at a handful of other fests before being quietly dumped in a mere two theatres. With Hawke fresh off his Oscar nomination for Boyhood and drone warfare an ever more controversial subject, you might think IFC Films would be a little more robust with their distribution strategy.
But the fact is that Good Kill is a weird little movie to market. You might think, based on the ripped-from-the-headlines appeal of its subject, that we’re looking at a Zero Dark Thirty-esque examination of drone warfare and its place in the modern military landscape, but really we’re just watching Eagan doing his job and getting more and more dead-eyed over the course of an hour and 45 minutes. Nothing much happens. Inasmuch as Good Kill is a movie about a soldier suffering from PTSD, it’s great, and Hawke turns in a wonderfully understated performance that’s enhanced by really, really damn good cinematography. (Shots of Eagan & co are often taken from above, as if he’s being watched by a drone himself, and the visual comparison the movie draws between the Middle East and where Eagan lives—filled with cookie cutter suburban homes and with the Vegas strip looming on the skyline but still very much a desert—is a nice touch.)
Unfortunately, writer/director Andrew Niccol wasn’t content to leave the movie there. It’s when Good Kill gets political about drone strikes that things get a little wince-y, with the script pitting Straw Man Zoë Kravitz (“Killing people before they’ve done anything wrong is what terrorists do! What would Captain America think?”) against Straw Man Bruce Greenwood (“Yeah, using drones sucks, but it also saves American lives. We can’t be the first one to back down”). Add in a completely unnecessary romance subplot between Eagan and Kravitz’s character, his second and command, and you’ve taken what could have been a really excellent character piece and brought it down to mere “Eh, I guess” levels.