Many who see The Kill Team will have never served a day in the US military, and even fewer will have found themselves in direct combat. Many of us have no idea how to properly cope with the traumas and morality of war, notably scenarios in which we must decide whether or not our value of human life can weather the primal need for self-preservation. In The Kill Team, released by A24, viewers get a front-row seat of how war crimes in particular can be ethically possible in our so-called civilized corner of the world, even among those who maintain there is a solid line between self-defense and cold-blooded murder.
Based on a true story and adapted from the feature-length documentary of the same name (sharing the same director, Dan Krauss), The Kill Team stars Nat Wolff as Andrew Briggman, a young US Private who has aspirations of becoming his platoon’s Team Leader while serving in Afghanistan circa 2009. He grapples with a severe hatred of the civilians in this country and views the military’s peacekeeping role as inherently flawed, making him and his fellow servicemen prime grooming targets for a new Staff Sergeant with murderous intent, played here by Alexander Skarsgård.
Compared to their previous superiors, Skarsgård’s Sergeant Deeks is a seductive strongman who easily wins the hearts of his men, to the point where they even physically compete for his affection. As the platoon slowly adopts his dangerous philosophies of combat, Briggman finds himself at a crossroads of conscience, having to decide whether or not he should take action and risk his own life to expose the misdeeds of his fellow men in arms.
Though The Kill Team is awash with action set pieces and gripping war scenes, it is far more akin to tense and suspenseful thrillers like The Hurt Locker. The fear behind the passive aggressive glances between servicemen is far more potent than anything involving a supposed enemy combatant. And the real battle is over the soul of an American soldier, who finds himself placed on the front lines of a different kind of war he never would have expected upon enlisting.
A true strength of this film is its willingness to honestly portray the shortcomings of military procedure and how war crimes this brazen can happen under this country’s nose, while fairly addressing the ways in which the military does crack down hard on these issues when rightfully addressed. There is a gray nuance to this normally black-and-white subject capable of sparking tense discussion when future generations discuss American intervention in the Middle East, and they can find wonderful case studies in both this narrative film and the documentary from 2014.
This is no flashy or bombastic film for the sake of it, nor is it altogether surprising or unbelievable (as much as it should be). It simply is, and what it is happens to be useful and an overall positive work many will find enlightening, if not horrifying in its implications. Wolff is at his best here, and impressively so considering how present he is throughout so much of the film’s runtime. Skarsgård is truly well-cast as both his foil and beloved mentor, but less can be said about the rest of the platoon, who end up fading into the background over time and blend in too easily with one another in more ways than one. As archetypes, they serve the script, but the film would have been better served by an ensemble with more to do.
At its best, The Kill Team will trap viewers into the same impossible questions lobbed at its main protagonist. And how these decisions and actions play out are not always elegant, which is about as realistic as a film based on a documentary can reasonably get. But at its worst, The Kill Team sometimes forgets to demonstrate why human life isn’t always so easily disposable for some, yet justifiable for others. In one crucial moment during the film, Sergeant Deeks himself seems aware of his role as this missing piece, the link between soldiers who permit themselves to do the unthinkable. It’s a chilling moment made even more haunting when the ending reaches its reality-based conclusion.