Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been portrayed in movies as components of a big brother society, or as efficient war tactics. In Good Kill, Andrew Niccol says that there might be more to explore with UAVs than just what they represent. With an effective performance from Ethan Hawke, the movie acts as a character study of what it means to be the person who kills in such a detached manner.
That is essentially all that Good Kill is concerned with tackling, as its plot is fairly thin (though not necessarily to its detriment). Thomas Egan (Hawke) is a former fighter pilot who has been relocated to Las Vegas where he is now a drone pilot for the US military. With that move, he is given stability in his life, from being able to live with his wife (January Jones) and daughter to just knowing that he will always be safe. He’s even really good at his job, which makes him have some job security as well. But things are more complicated than they appear from an outside perspective.
Thomas is not happy with his job, and questions the ethical dilemmas that he runs into on a daily basis as a drone pilot. A recurring image that he is forced to witness is a nameless Taliban soldier that frequently rapes a woman in the village they are monitoring. He isn’t able to do anything because that would give away the fact that they have drones over that village. The nameless Taliban soldier is also not their target, so shooting him down would tip-off their actual focus. A new recruit, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), is our visibly disturbed individual amidst other personnel who seem to take the “At least she’s not dead” mentality to heart. Thomas is the one who tries to keep his cool and avoids showing his true feelings to situations, even when it is clear that bottling them up is more harmful than good.
His wife knows better than to ask him questions, and he maintains an isolated presence even when he is with his family. The character is really well done, but he has a lot of the vices that can be expected from someone who is having his morales challenged. He is an alcoholic, and he is distant from those that love him. There’s even a constant implication that he will cheat on his wife with Suarez, which thankfully does not happen, but it never felt like his character would ever actually go through with it anyways.
The real reason you are watching this movie though is for Hawke’s performance, and he does an exceptional job. Bruce Greenwood plays his commanding officer, and is also fleshed out in a way that gives him depth that rarely occurs for supporting characters in a movie like this. What bothers me is that other characters feel fairly generic, and that doesn’t even mean that the main characters avoid having generic qualities. Thomas’s expected vices are the major issues with his character, but Suarez is completely conventional as the one woman on the team that also is a rookie and feels uncomfortable by the job that she signed up for. Zimmer (Jake Abel), is another member on the team, who fulfills the “Go America!” character that is always required. He isn’t shown in a very flattering light, but he adds cringe to an otherwise interesting subject.
Needless to say, your mileage with this film will vary. Hawke’s character is interesting, but also generic in many respects. As the focus of the film, it is disappointing that he has so many qualities that can be seen in similar films. However, the questions that the movie asks regarding drones and what it is like to witness (and at times, be a part of) atrocities around the world is endlessly fascinating. Niccol does do a good job at exploring these notions, but I can’t help but feel like he relies too much on having the audience hooked on the morality of it all than his own characters.