Hand him the right role or pair him with the right director and Ethan Hawke comes alive as an actor—radiating warmth and humor in a Richard Linklater joint, or bringing a relaxed wit to paycheck gigs that scarcely seem to demand it. (See: the surprisingly effective Sinister.) The trouble begins when this gaunt, intelligent star is charged with embodying someone lacking in levity, someone burdened with excessive malaise. His deadly seriousness can be deadly dull.
That’s one of the major problems with Good Kill, a righteous screed against drone warfare disguised as a character study. Hawke lowers his voice to a whisper and wipes that signature goofy grin off his face to play Thomas Egan, an Air Force veteran living and working in Las Vegas. Having survived six tours flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, Egan now serves his country from the safety and comfort of an “air-conditioned cubicle,” where his team uses drones to drop bombs on terrorist threats on the other side of the planet. He’s never in danger and he goes home to his family every night, but the job nonetheless gets to him. Where’s the excitement or the honor in wiping out “bad guys” from afar? And how’s he supposed to just shrug off the collateral damage the bigwigs insist he ignore?
These are questions worth asking, and there are certainly worse reasons to make a movie than trying to keep UAVs—their morality, and the toll they take on their operators—in the national conversation. But as Egan begins looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, Hawke defaults to a lethargic funk, and Good Kill has nothing to lean on but its noble intentions. Writer-director Andrew Niccol, who cast Hawke in his Gattaca almost 20 years ago, has a habit of letting his ideas outpace his storytelling. Here, he treats most of the supporting characters—a commanding officer played by Bruce Greenwood, a fellow drone pilot played by Zoë Kravitz—like mouthpieces, slipping talking points about their line of work into “conversation.” Meanwhile, back home, a typically stilted January Jones does a modern variation on Betty Draper, hounding her traumatized husband for being absent and drinking too much.
Heavy on speeches and light on actual drama, Good Kill is at least psychologically credible, exploring as it does the peculiar, specific adjustment issues facing modern soldiers—namely, the difficulty of spending every day blowing away strangers from a safe distance and every night back home with your family like everything is normal. But Niccol handles this PTSD conflict with little subtly, having Hawke literally identify the absurdity of his dual lives to a convenience store clerk. Good Kill is the type of movie for which the faint praise “well-meaning” was coined. And even then, only to a point, as it eventually muddles it own thesis, (accidentally?) implying there are just and unjust examples of using drones to kill non-military targets. No recasting would resolve that unfortunate turn.