Poor Andrew Niccol. He wants so badly to be that guy, you know? The New Zealand-born filmmaker has been toiling in Hollywood since the 1990s trying to make thrillers that both please the popcorn crowd and give the intellectuals something to chew on. Yet he’s such a ponderous director and heavy-handed writer that his movies come out bloodless and overdetermined, like his 2005 arms-dealer drama Lord of War and his 2011 science-fiction parable In Time. Following the flop of his putrid 2013 Stephenie Meyer adaptation The Host, he has now retreated to the low-budget hinterlands to make Good Kill, a pointlessly gloomy war film that seems to bring out all his worst traits.
The main character is Air Force Maj. Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), a veteran of six combat tours in Iraq who continues to serve by flying a drone that drops bombs on bad guys in the Middle East. He’s far from the front lines working in an air-conditioned building in the desert outside Las Vegas, where he gets to clock off at regular hours and go home to his family and his comfortable suburban house. Yet he’s still teetering on the brink, unwilling to have sex with his wife (January Jones), guzzling vodka while driving to the base, and obsessing over the children and other innocents he has killed remotely. When his unit starts taking orders from a faceless, nameless, soulless CIA bureaucrat (voiced by Peter Coyote) instead of the military, it pushes him over.
Clearly Niccol wants to dramatize why using drones is wrong, so he uses both Tom’s jaded superior officer (Bruce Greenwood) and his new, horrified co-pilot (Zoë Kravitz) as blatant mouthpieces for his point of view. He argues so ineptly that, even though I have considerable qualms about the practice myself, I found myself taking the side of Tom’s loathsome surveillance guy (Jake Abel), who responds to charges that drones make the Muslims hate us by saying, “They already hate us, and they always will because we have Hustler and Hooters, and we let our women drive and go to school.” That’s an odd string of associations, but he’s not without a point, and the movie neither acknowledges this nor tries to refute it.
The domestic drama in Tom’s life is tedious, and his two children are ciphers. His attempt at a redemptive gesture is weak, and maybe it’s meant to be depicted that way, but it still offers precious little dramatic payoff for us. Hawke plays every scene the same way, like he’s about to burst into tears. The whole issue of drone warfare was addressed far more cogently in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For all its good intentions, Good Kill represents nothing more than a once-promising filmmaker flailing for direction.
Starring Ethan Hawke, January Jones, and Zoë Kravitz. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Rated R.