At a certain point, I need to stop falling for the Andrew Niccol trap. Every time I hear about a new movie from the director, I think the concept is brilliant. Then, every time I see the movie, I’m inevitably disappointed. The guy clearly has a genius for premises, but he can never quite seem to push them across the finish line. He needs someone to come in and rework his scripts, like Peter Weir did on ‘The Truman Show’. Sadly, it looks like that might never happen again.
‘Good Kill’ is essentially Niccol’s comment on the perils of drone warfare, which is certainly a timely topic very much worth exploring. Ethan Hawke stars as a former Top Gun flyboy who now spends his days bombing terrorists on the other side of the world from a computer monitor in the Nevada desert. In theory, it should be a comfortable alternative for someone in his position. He gets to live in a suburban home with his wife (January Jones) and kids, and he never has to risk his life again while serving Uncle Sam. Of course, it’s not quite so easy. Hawke misses the buzz of being in the air. The cold monotony of killing people on a computer screen every day slowly rips apart his psyche until he finds himself drinking away every second that he isn’t killing people remotely. His boss (Bruce Greenwood) doesn’t much care for this new form of warfare either, but views it as a necessary evil. That is, of course, until they start getting secret CIA assignments from the disembodied voice of Peter Coyote that feel much more like war crimes than combat.
It’s safe to say that this isn’t exactly a subtle movie. Andrew Niccol has a very distinct point of view that he wants to hammer into the head of any viewer watching. The bulk of the dialogue spat out by Greenwood’s character is really just rhetoric expressing the filmmaker’s talking points, and pretty much every other character does the same at least once.
On a certain level, the cold detachment that defines Niccol’s voice as both a writer and director suits the movie. After all, it’s a story about people whose job it is to shut off their emotions and empathy every day for work. However, it also makes the movie almost too cold to take. It’s hard enough to get wrapped up in a film about a distant protagonist who is passive-aggressively cruel to everyone around him, but that’s only compounded when the film treats its audience the same way. It’s virtually impossible to get emotionally invested in the movie, and coming out the other side feels more like exiting a stern lecture than anything resembling an involving cinematic experience.
That’s not to say that the movie is without interest. There are times when the Niccol hits his mark. The coldhearted murderous monotony of killing people thousands of miles away from the comfort of a computer screen does make an impact. It’s amazing how it distances viewers from the action (until of course the scenarios seem morally suspect), and the filmmaker certainly achieves his goal of communicating that concept. The consistently underrated Hawke is always good and this performance is no exception. He’s robbed completely of his usual charms and charisma to be trapped inside a pent-up mess teetering on the edge of self-destruction. The way the character is presented inspires empathy, but not sympathy, and Hawke rolls with those punches. He never panders to the audience. He’s always honest to his burned-out shell of a man, and at times that makes his performance hard to watch in all the right ways.
It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie can’t live up to the distressingly distant drone combat scenes and the painfully honest central performance. Unfortunately, Niccol doesn’t really give anyone else on screen much inner life. They’re merely pawns in his big political argument who speak only when necessary for his themes or plot. (January Jones is particularly wasted playing yet another unsatisfied wife.) Those themes are so heavy-handed and shoved down the audience’s throat with such ferocity that it’s often hard to breathe, never mind emotionally connect with the movie.
Unfortunately, these problems tend to infect pretty much all of Niccol’s work, so it’s not as if this is an unusual misstep. The filmmaker might have a gift for dreaming up big movie gimmicks that grab attention, but he hasn’t matured enough as a storyteller to deliver a movie worthy of his ideas. ‘Good Kill’, like all Andrew Niccol projects, is ultimately fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. You’ll be drawn in by the concepts and then shoved away by their awkwardly stilted delivery. It’s an exhausting experience and not worth the trouble.