Behold the gaunt, bony, rodent-like face of Ethan Hawke, who often spackles his strongest performances with the feints and dodges of a scared, reluctant rule-breaker too dim-witted to completely cover his tracks. Hawke's distracted, sad shiftiness — which makes it seem as though he's trying (and failing) to pull one over on you — serves him well in Andrew Niccol's Good Kill, a crisp, smart, talky film about the escalating absurdities of the ruthless, endless war on terror.
Although Good Kill is set in 2010, its hand-wringing over combat ethics and shell-shock remain current. Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a middle-aged Air Force pilot whose latest tour of duty is part flight simulation and part desk-jockey drudgery. From inside a cramped, windowless mobile bunker on a military base not far from his suburban Las Vegas home, Egan and his fellow airmen sit at their computers and watch live UVA (unmanned aerial vehicle) video footage of potential targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Whenever Egan and company are given the order to strike, they abstract their actions and its destructive consequences by repeating a grim mantra: "Missiles away. Time of flight: 10 seconds." They are then rewarded with footage of faraway people, places, and buildings blowing up.
It's clear that the job is getting to Egan; the coals in his backyard grill at night remind him of the fiery destruction he helped unleash during the day. Plus, he no longer feels like a soldier — he misses the "fear" of actual manned flight. His drinking is getting worse, his relationship with his wife Molly (January Jones) is falling apart, and he can't seem to explain to himself why he's following the orders he's being given.
Egan's dilemma is not lost on Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), his superior and occasional confidant.
In contrast to Hawke's hoarse underplaying, Greenwood imbues his weary philosopher-coach role with swagger and gusto. He gets to curse and rage at new recruits while standing in front of a giant American flag, and he also gets some of the film's most self-consciously aphoristic dialogue: "Drones aren't going anywhere. They're going everywhere." Although Johns is too on the nose a bit too often about the subtle catch-22s of the new war technology, his willingness to think about the paradoxes of his job seem visionary when contrasted with the devastatingly cruel orders given in perfectly scrubbed English by a CIA member (Peter Coyote, literally phoning it in) whose directives push Johns, Egan and others into grayer, darker moral corners.
Niccol keeps his ideas about war in the foreground while the suspenseful action unfolding on the monitors remains chillingly remote and abstract. The drone strikes and explosions are both devastating and completely silent, and there's some artsy stylistic rhymes thrown in, too: Through Niccol's use of extremely high-angle establishing shots for both rural villages and suburban backyards, the parallels between Vegas and Afghanistan grow more obvious. People may live and work in these places, but the eye in the sky sees no meaningful distinctions.
Studio on the Square