'Good Kill' Aims Deep, But Only Skims Surface

By Abby Olcese 5-28-2015
Screenshot from 'Good Kill' trailer.
Screenshot from 'Good Kill' trailer.

The subject of drone warfare has been part of the public and political discourse for long enough that it’s becoming an emerging topic in the art world. Visual artists are experimenting with drone-visible installations and alternative uses for the technology. In the one-woman play Grounded, currently on stage in New York, Anne Hathaway plays a hotshot Air Force pilot forced to fly drones due to her pregnancy.

Now there’s Good Kill, a film from Gattaca and Lord of War writer-director Andrew Niccol, about the PTSD, job dissatisfaction, and moral injury faced by drone pilots. Ethan Hawke plays Tommy Egan, a former Air Force pilot who spends his days observing and eradicating enemy combatants from a trailer outside Las Vegas. The film explores battle that’s bloodless and simple on one end, but has devastating impact on the other. It’s also a character study on the effects that particular disconnect has on the people pulling the trigger.

Unfortunately, the film lacks any form of artifice, subtlety, or depth of character for it to be very interesting. The nature of the film’s limited locations — Egan’s house, the trailer he works from, a liquor store, a Vegas club — and limited cast — mainly restricted to Egan, his wife (January Jones), his superior (Bruce Greenwood), and his co-pilots — means the only space left to explore is Egan’s troubled psyche. But Niccol doesn’t do much with that, either.

Instead of introducing any kind of internal monologue, Niccol is content to let us simply follow Egan as he goes between home and work, drinks more and more,  and becomes alienated from his family. The film hits basic story beats, none of which are very surprising, and uses storytelling that remains disappointingly surface-level.

The political elements of the film are uneven, and can feel less subtle than a drone skywriting “compromised morals” over the White House. Some choices, like using surveillance-style aerial views of Egan’s house or downtown Vegas as establishing shots, are thoughtful. Most others — including clunky lines like “Drones aren’t going anywhere, they’re going everywhere” — feel heavy-handed and obvious.

Addressing moral injury in film is important. Addressing pertinent political issues like drone warfare is also important. But Good Kill doesn’t say anything an editorial wouldn’t, and takes about three times as long to say it. With this film, Andrew Niccol tries to create a sense of disassociation similar to what his drone pilot protagonist would feel. Sadly, the end isn’t compelling enough to justify the means. Good Kill ends up being a ponderous slog, a film that wants to be a conversation-starter but doesn’t introduce any new or interesting entry points into that conversation.

Good Kill is out in theaters now. WATCH the trailer here.

Abby Olcese is the Advertising Assistant for Sojourners.​

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