Years after the height of the War on Terror, the American public still grapples with guilt over the country’s actions abroad. “The Kill Team” is an exploration of that guilt through the firsthand experience of a soldier, and a tense look into the conditions that caused some American soldiers to give up morality in favor of ruthless violence. The film is based on director Dan Krauss’ 2013 documentary of the same name. In both movies, Krauss tells the true story of Afghanistan’s 2009 “Maywand District murders,” a tragic chain of events involving the execution of random Afghan civilians at the hands of a rogue American officer and his team of soldiers.
“The Kill Team” follows Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff), a young man who joins the army in hopes of making a positive difference. Soon after arriving in Afghanistan, his commanding officer is killed and replaced by Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), a cold, imposing leader who quickly scares the team into submission. Within weeks of Deeks’ appointment, Briggman realizes that the ruthless Deeks has been using his position to kill innocent civilians and stage the murders as self-defense. When Briggman contemplates reporting this to the authorities, he realizes that doing so may cost him his life, and what ensues is a tense series of events that question the limits of morality.
The first half of the film is dedicated to characterizing Deeks as a cold-blooded authoritarian, and it’s this characterization that makes the rest of the film so chilling. When Deeks instructs his team members to kill Afghans, he justifies the murders with the argument that it’s the team’s righteous duty to kill. As the men fall deeper into this ruthless mindset, the audience gets a look into the increasingly sinister effects of groupthink and peer pressure in the context of war. The tension that accompanies this is possible, in large part, because of Skarsgård’s stoic mannerisms and expertly chilling delivery of dialogue. Skarsgård’s performance truly communicates the callousness of a cold-blooded soldier, providing a look into the violent American patriotism that further divided an already-polarized war.
Wolff’s performance acts as an important complement to that of Skarsgård and contributes just as much to the power of the film. Wolff’s Briggman is a voice of reason in the story: While his teammates find great pride and joy in killing, Briggman is more skeptical. And, once the killings are revealed to be intentional, he is the only one who seeks justice. When Deeks senses this, however, Briggman’s compassion becomes the main point of conflict. As Deeks gets more sinister, Briggman gets more paranoid and this uneasy relationship creates a growing sense of suspense throughout the film.
Briggman acts as an effective audience surrogate, as Wolff conveys the helplessness and confusion that one would face in such a situation, matching the emotions of the audience and allowing viewers to live vicariously through the film’s protagonist. As Wolff makes Brigmann more relatable, the audience is able to experience his terror more deeply, making the moral conflict feel all the more personal and heart-wrenching.
The film’s pace is an important supplement to the actors’ performances; although “The Kill Team” runs at just 87 minutes, it feels like a fully developed rollercoaster of emotions. The first half of the story moves slowly, building Briggman as a character and allowing the audience to feel out his surroundings. At the halfway mark, however, the film turns into a fast-paced devolution of Briggman’s sanity, making viewers feel invested throughout.
This investment is supplemented by Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography: The action scenes are not filmed in the typical dynamic style of war movies, and instead pay close attention to the characters’ faces and barely anything else. With this, Krauss emphasizes that the killings are not adrenaline-inducing — they are grievous and uncomfortable, something we’re allowed to see in the characters’ expressions.
In “The Kill Team,” Krauss brings to light the horrors of war that are often overlooked in mainstream American media. He explores the sadism that war breeds and the unnecessary violence that it creates, dissecting the emotional turmoil that results from this. Viewers are left feeling hurt and conflicted — and with that, the film is a success.
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