Ethan Hawke and January Jones in "Good Kill." Photo: Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.

Ethan Hawke and January Jones in “Good Kill.” Photo: Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.

When Ethan Hawke as Major Tom Egan puts his hand on a joystick and sends a drone dead-on to its target, it’s a “good kill.” But in Andrew Niccol’s new film of the same name, which had its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, there is no such thing. This is no conventional theatre of war we’re witnessing but a manless enterprise of deadly proportion. And for the all-too-human players, there’s a psychological cost of lasting consequences.

Niccol has fashioned and directed a script that never wavers from its objective. Set largely in an isolated desert landscape in Nevada, Tom’s typical workday consists of attacking Taliban sites in Southeast Asia from inside his stateside trailer, then returning to the tidily suburban tract home he shares with his wife Molly (January Jones). If the circumstances sound like an episode out of TV’s ’50s classic The Twilight Zone, you’re not far wrong. For no matter how hard Molly might try to create a somewhat normal love nest for her hubby, it’s not to be. After six tours as a crack Air Force pilot, Tom is now a drone operator. Highly-skilled he might be, but he’s daily becoming an increasingly dead-eyed automaton, disconnected to his life outside his attack trailer almost to the point of paralysis.

This is not the first time that director Niccol has worked with his leading man. Previously paired in Gattaca, a riveting, humanistic sci-fi drama, the director was justly nominated for an Academy Award. For the second time around, Hawke is a very wise casting choice. He brings an enormous sensitivity to the role, as we watch a man who has managed to compartmentalize his feelings until he can no longer turn his eyes away from the real nature of his work.

Another successful casting decision is in January Jones as Tom’s wife. This is a down-to-earth, sexy but frazzled woman who finds herself at a loss as to how to save her fractured marriage. It may sound like a familiar scenario for this actress, who is no stranger to playing long-suffering spouses. But here, unlike the constricted, more conventional role she created as Don Draper’s partner in AMC’s Mad Men, she lets her hair down to good effect. She longs to take up an aborted interest in dance and the easy pleasures of Vegas with a once-willing mate. She simply remembers what it used to be like to just have fun.

But wherever the filmmaker posits us, whether in Molly’s slickly predictable suburban kitchen or the surreal neon-blasted streets of downtown Vegas, we are never long removed from the kill sites on the other side of the globe. Intercuts between the arid residential compounds in Southeast Asia and Tom’s vapid Nevada trailer compound create a visual tautness — as if these two landscapes, though separated by 7,000 miles, act as parallel universes linked together in a macabre destiny. If this spectrum of parched foreign scenery weighed against the claustrophobic and colorless interior of the work station seems unrelenting, its ultimate effect is to keep us focused on the deadly business at hand.

An almost unbearable tension is created every time Tom orders a strike. We are held captive during the 10 seconds from his tap on the joystick to the impact, the “splash” down on the chosen mark. We may witness an intended human target moving across the computer screen, then, unexpectedly, the arrival of a pair of children intent on their hoop game enter the frame. In another instant, a successful strike or “good kill” immediately brings a group of villagers in their black chador garb to the scene — rescuers or simply bystanders to the devastation, they are, unfortunately, a byproduct of the mission’s success. Ordered to “neutralize the threat” by Langley-based CIA operatives, Tom and his team are then commanded to conduct a second strike on this new human cluster.

Where there was once a gathering of villagers, there is nothing but a fiery cloud. But there’s no forgetting. As Tom says, “Once you see it, how do you unsee it?” As he stands over a backyard barbecue, the camera holds on the charcoal blaze. The man can be forgiven for lack of concentration on his dinner preparations — his mind is obviously thousands of miles away on the afternoon’s mission.

The supporting players in this tightly-constructed script are equally strong. Bruce Greenwood as Jack Johns, the mission commander, turns in an impassioned yet even-tempered performance. It is all too clear to him that the language of what they do carries its own treachery. Expressions like “prosecuting a target” or “neutralizing the threat” are hardly a sufficient smoke screen to the real business at hand — the killing of often innocent human beings. He also understands that to a former Air Force pilot like Tom with six tours under his belt, operating a drone is like exchanging “a Ferrari for a Ford Fiesta.” Never one to mince words, he advises his men not to ask if it’s a “just war.” It’s just war.

A brief romantic flirtation ensues when Tom is furnished with a rookie co-pilot in his trailer headquarters. Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) aims to do her duty, but even if she is committed to being one of the boys, as a woman she can’t be expected to remain unmoved by everything she witnesses on the monitor screen. When a female villager is routinely raped in her compound yard by a Taliban soldier, she and Tom see themselves helpless to remedy the situation. From their aerial perspective, they are not just long-distance drone operators routing out the enemy, but voyeurs to an unwanted and sadistic peep show.

Given the number of “boots on the ground” dramas available to the public, some viewers may feel a bit distanced from the action. But in this case, isn’t that the point? Obviously, Niccol wants us to feel the disorientation of being there, but not being there. Given that Good Kill is above all a psychologically-driven drama, his rapid intercuts between the monitor’s target site and Tom’s tortured close-ups are an essential part of the story.

His detailed take on the world of drone technology is extremely timely. Just this week, our government announced the latest casualties of a drone strike in Pakistan from earlier this year. An American aid worker, Warren Weinstein, who was kidnapped in 2011, and another Italian hostage were unnecessarily killed, even after hundreds of hours of surveillance. Evidently, President Obama’s policy of “near certainty” wasn’t certain enough. And according to Peter Baker’s New York Times article of April 23, it’s this very uncertainty that underscores “the perils of a largely invisible, long-distance war waged through video screens, joysticks and sometimes incomplete intelligence.”

Niccol should be proud of himself for not only making a successful film, but an important one as well. This is one drone experience that should hit home for many a target audience.

Rating: A

Video courtesy of MOVIECLIPS Trailers.

“Good Kill” had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19. The film, which runs at 103-minutes, will be released theatrically in New York on Friday, May 15, opening to a nationwide and VOD audience on Friday, May 22.