Fictional movies that tackle topical subjects often have about them the fusty air of a civics lesson, as if we’re supposed to watch pretending that we’re not being led down the path of righteousness. But writer-director Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill is something else; it’s immediate and vital, and it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve got all the right answers. This is an action movie, polished and efficient, where we watch all the action from a safe remove: Ethan Hawke stars as Thomas Egan, a drone pilot who lives in Las Vegas with his wife (January Jones) and two kids. Every day, he leaves his pleasantly manicured, anonymous-looking airbase home for work, where he sits down in front of a console and picks off Taliban — and more than a few unlucky Afghan civilians — from the safety of his chair.
We see these wartime hits and misses just as Egan does, framed in the squared-off context of a computer screen, which is not so different from a movie screen — it’s all so close, yet so far away. The picture is quiet, tense, and thoughtful. That’s not uncharacteristic for Niccol, who has a knack for teasing out complex sociopolitical threads: His sorely underrated 2011 science fiction thriller In Time — in which days, months, and years of human life are treated as currency, a thing the rich can buy and the poor often find themselves in need of selling — hit theaters just as Occupy Wall Street was making the news. That means Niccol had his finger on the pulse of that movement — and that feeling of helplessness in the face of big business — even before protesters started pumping blood through its veins.
Similarly, Good Kill, even though it’s set in 2010, is rooted in the here and now. The moral issues it raises have grown more crucial, rather than less. And its moral conscience has a great face: that of Ethan Hawke, who has always been a thoughtful, quietly expressive actor, but who seems to be finding even subtler shades of color as he rounds the bend toward middle age. He’s not so much expanding his range as deepening it. Hawke plays Egan as a man who holds his anguish tight and close, as if, somewhere along the line, his heart had turned into a fist. The character is one you’ve seen many times before — the soldier who’s haunted by the horrors he perpetrates in the line of duty — but Hawke keeps this performance hushed and low to the ground, making the ramifications of this new type of warfare distressingly intimate. The battle, this time, is much closer to home.