'The Kill Team': Film Review

A bit redundant, but powerful nonetheless thanks to the two leads.

Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgard star in Dan Krauss' Afghan War-set thriller based on his acclaimed 2013 documentary.

Dan Krauss' Afghan War-set thriller The Kill Team has an unfortunate familiarity, and it's not only because it's based on the filmmaker's 2013 documentary of the same name. Depicting wartime atrocities committed by our soldiers overseas, the film is but the latest in a distressingly long line of similarly-themed dramas that, by sheer dint of repetition, have sadly lost their urgency. Despite superb performances by Nat Wolff as a conflicted young soldier and particularly Alexander Skarsgard as a sociopathic platoon leader, the pic proves only sporadically compelling.

The Kill Team presents a somewhat fictionalized depiction of the true story, presented in the documentary, of Adam Winfield, one of five soldiers who were accused of murdering three Afghan civilians and attempting to cover up the crimes by claiming they were enemy combatants. Winfield, a private, had actually attempted to alert military higher-ups of the murders his fellow soldiers, dubbed the "kill team," were committing on a regular basis, but his entreaties met with little response. After the crimes were exposed, the platoon's leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who encouraged the killings, was convicted and given a life sentence.

In this dramatized version using different names, Wolff plays Andy Briggman, a proud enlistee, wishing to follow in his military father's footsteps, who finds himself serving in the Kandahar Valley region. At first, Andy plays by the rules, treating the Afghans with respect and getting along well with his platoon's leader who believes in attempting to win the hearts and minds of the local people with whom they're interacting.

The situation changes drastically when the sergeant is critically wounded by an IED and replaced by the deceptively soft-spoken Sgt. Deeks (Skarsgard). Deeks is the sort of man who, when he informs Andy that his sergeant has died, coldly tells the shocked young soldier, "If you're gonna get emotional, don't do it here." The new sergeant also proves himself to be a master of psychological manipulation, effectively pitting his soldiers against each other as a way of promoting their aggressiveness, and a cold-blooded sadist who advises his young charges, "We kill people. That's what we do."

"You know that anything that happens out here stays in the family, right?" Deeks asks menacingly.

Andy attempts to get with the program and intently tries to win Deeks' favor. But he becomes increasingly horrified by his platoon's war crimes being committed on a daily basis. When he starts conveying hints to his father (Rob Morrow) about what's going on, he becomes increasingly paranoid that he's going to be targeted by his fellow soldiers. This leads to one of the film's most effectively tense scenes, in which Andy is repeatedly asked by his comrades to retrieve an object left on the battlefield and he becomes fearfully convinced that they'll shoot him in the back if he does.   

Wolff, who thankfully seems to be embracing darker, more adult material as he matures, delivers a complex, deeply sympathetic turn as the young man who wants to reveal what's going on but becomes afraid for his life if he does. But it's Skarsgaard who anchors the film with his galvanizing performance as the sociopathic Deeks. His performance is all the more effective for its restraint and canny underplaying. The actor speaks nearly all of his lines in a near whisper, as if his character's evilness is so virulent that he barely needs to make an effort to make himself heard. He's like the demonic equivalent of the infamous "Low-Talker" from the classic Seinfeld episode, except you really, really don't want to hear what he has to say.

Production companies: Nostromo Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment
Distributor: A24
Cast: Nat Wolff, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Rob Morrow, Osy Okhile, Anna Francollini
Director-screenwriter: Dan Krauss
Producers: Adrian Guerra, Isaac Klausner, Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey
Executive producers: Dan Krauss, Miguel Angel Faura, Nuria Valls, Alison Thompson, Mark Gooder
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Victor Molero
Editor: Franklin Peterson
Composer: Zacarias M. de la Riva
Costume designer: Cristina Sopena
Casting: Sophie Holland

Rated R, 87 minutes