'Good Kill': Venice Review

Lorey Sebastian
Ethan Hawke in 'Good Kill'
A needling depiction of collateral damage

Ethan Hawke stars as a drone pilot fighting the Taliban from the Nevada desert in writer-director Andrew Niccol's timely psychological drama

VENICE — The uneasy interaction of technology and human emotion has been a recurrent theme in the films of Andrew Niccol.

That vein is tapped with chilling timeliness in this psychologically complex and unsettling contemplation of what constitutes a Good Kill, examined through the pressure-cooker existence of a man behind the console of a remotely piloted U.S. military aircraft. While it eschews the intensity of, say, The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, to name two recent war-on-terror dramas, the measured tone here makes it all the more riveting.

The film’s premiere comes in the immediate wake of this week’s news of the second retaliatory execution of an American prisoner by Islamic militant group ISIS. In fact, that latest horror is so fresh a wound that a reference to Pentagon embarrassment over a video showing the beheading of a Marine prompted quiet gasps at the press screening reviewed. (The movie is set in 2010 and is based on true events.)

Drawing wide commentary, ISIS directly namechecked President Obama. Given that the U.S. government’s policies are viewed with a critical eye in Good Kill — above all the CIA’s involvement in military missions — Niccol’s film provides plenty of editorial fodder and provocative food for thought. That should expedite its flight path from back-to-back Venice and Toronto bows into theaters.

Excluding the beguiling sui generis excursion of his collaborations with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke’s reunion with his director on 1997’s big-brain, retro-futuristic sci-fi thriller Gattaca, as well as 2005’s more satirical take on the morality of armed conflict, Lord of War, yields the actor’s best screen role in years.

Hawke plays Major Tom Egan, a U.S. Air Force pilot with six tours of duty under his belt. He’s chafing to get out of the sweatbox container where he’s been stationed just outside Las Vegas, and return to an actual “theater of operation.” His wife Molly (January Jones), a knockout former dancer, welcomes his removal from the conflict zone, even if Tom’s gnawing frustration makes him more distant now than when he was home between tours.

The pep talks of commanding officer Lt. Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood) suggest that Tom’s time in the air makes him an anomaly among a bunch of kids recruited for their video-gamer skills. As they step behind a metal door bearing a sign that reads “You Are Now Leaving the U.S.A.,” Tom, his new co-pilot Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), and gung-ho backup technicians Zimmer (Jake Abel) and Christie (Dylan Kenin) take up their positions at computers on which they monitor suspected Taliban activity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and later Yemen.

The sobering PlayStation parallels will be lost on no one watching as Tom pushes a button and a screen image of a weapons warehouse, a residence, or a vehicle carrying Taliban soldiers vanishes in a cloud of smoke and rubble, on some occasions catching civilian casualties in the blast. Each “good kill,” as a clean hit is termed, costs $68,000 in taxpayer dollars. The film acknowledges, via Johns, that the Air Force cops a lot of flak from the public over drone warfare, with computerized missile planes now outnumbering manned aircraft.

Tom steadily unravels, from numb, vodka-fueled efficiency to full-blown PTSD, triggered by a shift in base protocol whereby orders are to come direct from CIA headquarters in Langley. (Peter Coyote provides the disembodied voice relaying instructions with emotionless authority.) In unrecorded exchanges that officially never happened, the CIA steps up the aggressive strategy, targeting suspicious patterns of activity rather than confirmed suspects. While Tom, Johns, and especially increasingly troubled Vera question their orders, Langley makes it clear that non-compliance is not an option.

Kravitz gets to show more range here than she has onscreen up to now, and while the hint of romantic frisson between Vera and Tom doesn’t add much, their shared qualms over the job feed into the film’s lucid skepticism.

But the core drama is the growing disconnect between Tom’s 12 hours a day of killing people by remote control and going home where he’s expected to be a husband and father, firing up the barbecue or helping his son (Zion Leyba) with math homework. The simmering friction with Jones’ loving yet borderline passive-aggressive Molly is smartly modulated. And the tightly contained nature of Hawke’s performance through most of the film makes his one shattering explosion of rage quite startling. This is a man who found it easier to rationalize his duty in a conflict zone than he does from the safety of a box in the desert.

Having long refused to discuss his work at home, giving Molly one more reason to feel shut out, Tom’s painful act of opening up to her after a particularly distraught day provides one of the film’s most affecting moments. But there’s heightened emotion just under the surface in every one of the fascinatingly detailed scenes depicting drone strikes. Niccol weighs the human toll on both aggressor and target with intelligence and compassion, while questioning whether technological warfare is inevitably destined to be an unending cycle.

The screenplay is not immune to overwritten passages in which subtext is forcefully articulated in nuggets of movie-ish dialogue — notably from Greenwood’s principled but by-the-book commanding officer and from Abel’s insensitive jock, in favor of wiping out anything that looks even remotely like an enemy. “Fly and fry” is Zimmer’s unexamined mandate. But there’s psychological meat on the film’s bones, and a compelling cool-headedness to its blurring of the lines that separate the terrorists from the defenders of freedom.

The drama’s conflicted worlds are smartly mirrored in cinematographer Amir Mokri’s crisp widescreen images, while editor Zach Staenberg never gets too obvious about cutting from the deserts and villages of the attack zones to the landscapes of Nevada, its flat, dry expanses broken up by pockets of tidy suburbia and the neon playground of the Vegas Strip. Lots of insinuating low angles and scrutinizing overhead shots quietly reinforce the central idea of a movie about people watching people, alert for any signs of aberrant behavior. There’s restraint also in Christopher Beck’s score, which keeps its Middle Eastern accents subtle.

Production company: Voltage Pictures, Sobini Films

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kravitz, Jake Abel, January Jones, Dylan Kenin, Zion Leyba, Michael Sheets, Ross Shaw, Peter Coyote

Director-screenwriter: Andrew Niccol

Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Zev Foreman, Mark Amin, Andrew Niccol

Executive producers: Cami Winikoff, Tyler Boehm, Patrick Newell, Ted Gidlow

Director of photography: Amir Mokri

Production designer: Guy Barnes

Music: Christophe Beck

Costume designer: Lisa Jensen

Editor: Zach Staenberg

Visual effects supervisor: Craig Lyn

Sales: CAA, Voltage Pictures

No rating, 102 minutes.

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