Tribeca Review: Drone Warfare Drama 'Good Kill' Misses Its Target

Writer-director Andrew Niccol first drew notice in 1997 with the Ethan Hawke sci-fi thriller "Gattaca." They worked together again in 2005 for the mostly forgotten arms dealer drama "Lord of War," and now, a decade later, they've reunited once more for "Good Kill." Some guys just don't when to leave well enough alone.

This time around Hawke stars as all-American family man Tom Egan, who was once a proud member of the Air Force and a top-notch pilot. Now, he's still in the military, but rather than risking his life in the unfriendly skies, he flies remotely via drones. And he has far less pride in what he does. Actually, killing potential Taliban members from 7,000 miles away, nestled safe in a the Nevada military base, is breaking Tom. He's stopped speaking to his wife (January Jones). In fact, he doesn't speak much to anybody, hiding behind sunglasses, and drowning his bad feelings in countless bottles of vodka.

Regrettably, Hawke's performance is made up mostly of intense stares and grumbling barely there social interactions, punctuated by the occasional violent outburst. We get that he's pained. But Hawke's portrayal is so shut down that we're cut off from his feelings. Good thing there are women around. They're good for expressing feelings, so suggests Niccol's screenplay.

Jones has the thankless job of playing Mrs. Egan, who is repeatedly leered at with toe-to-tops camera shots to remind us that Tom should be happy; he has a hot wife that he's able to come home to every night. Aside from a sex scene meant to show how numb Tom's become (because what kind of zombie must you be to not revel in a romp with Jones?), the "Mad Men" star is given little else to do but nag her onscreen husband. Oh, and she gets to be the audience for his big less-than-emotional speech as we barrel into "Good Kill"s grotesque ending.

The movie's other woman is at work, so that we can understand the troubling emotions that bubble up when bystanders are accidentally -- or sometimes purposefully -- blown to bits by drone missiles. Dulled by drink, Tom might wince when kids are killed, but it's rookie Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz, the brightest part of this bleak affair) who tears up, and speaks out in defiance as the CIA pushes for attacks on targets whose threat to the United States is less and less clear. Blame the script or Hawke's flat performance, but I felt nothing for Tom; I was far more interested in Vera.

In the course of the film, we see Vera enter the Air Force as a promising up-and-comer who's proud and idealistic. But as the disturbing realities of drone warfare are heaped upon her and her team, we see Vera crack. She debates the ethics of drone attacks with a meat-headed co-worker who's conservative ideology is positively cartoonish on the matter. Repeatedly, she's shut down by her lieutenant colonel who makes plain (through a barrage of monologues) that drones are the best of a long list of bad options. Although her arc from idealistic to disillusioned is much more dramatic and dynamic than old-timer Tom's, hers is not the one we follow. To add insult to injury, Niccol wedges in a sloppy subplot of sexual attraction between the two that feels one-sided and impossible. (Why would Vera have any interest in the vodka-soaked plank of wood that is Tom Egan?)

The "Good Kill" is bad on several fronts. Its take on the strong but silently suffering leading man leans too far into silent, so the emotional payload never quite hits. The structure of watching the actual drone attacks becomes episodic, having a numbing effect that's disturbing. But not in a way that I'm not convinced is intentional. Its criticism of drone warfare is so ham-fisted that the film turns off-putting, not so much for its politics but for its insistence that its audience is dense. Then, inexplicably Niccol tries to sharply turn this grim ride into a happy ending with a wannabe redemption act that is way too little too late and arguably insulting.

But "Good Kill"s biggest obstacle is bad timing. It's a war drama dealing with how a soldier's skill at killing is matched only by his anxieties over it. And it's coming to the United States on the heels of Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," a film that inspired debate, earned Academy Awards attention, and became a box-office hit. "Good Kill" can't compete on levels of spectacle, star power or even visual storytelling. Ultimately, it's a miss.

"Good Kill" is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. A theatrical release will follow on May 15.

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