GOOD KILL (NC16)
102 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ 3.5/5
The story: Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) used to be a combat pilot. Now, he executes drone strikes and returns home each day to his wife (January Jones) and children in a Las Vegas suburb. His superior, Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), believes in following orders, while newcomer to the team, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), believes in speaking her mind. When the orders to kill start coming in from a disembodied voice over the telephone from the Central Intelligence Agency instead of the military, some start to question the morality of their actions.
Ethan Hawke is haunted and haunting in Good Kill.
Teaming up again with writer-director Andrew Niccol, with whom he had worked on the stylish and absorbing sci-fi drama Gattaca (1997), the actor known for films such as Boyhood (2014) and Before Midnight (2013) slips thoroughly under the skin of Egan to create a compellingly flawed character.
Not only is he a combat pilot who gets his wings clipped, to add insult to injury, he also has to continue to wear a flight suit even though his work station is now a bunker in the Nevada desert.
He does not want to burden his wife with the murky details of work, preferring to keep it all bottled up and releasing stress by drinking.
The not-very-helpful advice from his boss is to keep compartmentalising.
Each time he completes a successful drone strike, he utters: "Good kill."
It is a phrase that grows increasingly ironic and fraught as Niccol examines what it means to kill from a distance. While the crew are removed from the actual location, what they see through the drone's camera is shockingly intimate, as they can even make out faces and expressions.
The television drama Homeland explored similar terrain over the course of Season Four, albeit without much discussion of the ethics of a drone strike which triggers a dramatic chain of events.
Good Kill takes a quieter approach by forgoing an emotive music score for much of the film and is also more thoughtful, raising all kinds of questions.
Much of the outright querying is by junior airman Suarez. The pointed posers include why are they carrying out missions in Yemen, a country not at war with the United States, and whether striking a target twice to fully eliminate a threat puts them on a par with terrorists who wait for rescuers to arrive and then attack again.
She even asks sarcastically at one point: "Was that a war crime?"
The movie also addresses the changing nature of war to one in which the combatants are now playing a shooting game, a comparison that was presciently drawn in the 1985 classic sci-fi novel Ender's Game.
Towards the end, the film stumbles with a few false steps. Egan's actions stretch plausibility, yet they make sense in the context of one man's attempt to redeem his humanity.