October 21, 2019 The Kill Team (Movie Review)
In 2013, Dan Krauss (The Death of Kevin Carter 2004. Extremis 2016) directed The Kill Team – a documentary about how Private Adam Winfield tried to blow the whistle on his platoon’s war crimes in Afghanistan. It did not go so well for him, being left to make the hard decision whether to let it pass or stick to his guns and end up in the crosshairs himself. That in mind, the documentary received largely favorable reviews. Which is why Krauss returns to the subject and wrote a script based on the Documentary for the new feature film The Kill Team, due in theaters and VOD Friday, October 25th via A24.
The names have been changed, with Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff: The Fault in Our Stars 2014. Paper Towns 2015) witnessing his unit kill on the orders of the sadistic Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård: Melancholia 2011. True Blood series). He is considering reporting them to the higher-ups, but the team has already heard rumors that someone in their ranks has turned on them. Will he stay quiet to save his skin, or risk their wrath?
It is not a cozy viewing, but it intends to get people thinking. Then again, harsh, anti-war films set in a war are not exactly new ground. There is a bundle just on the Vietnam war alone, largely from the late 1980’s. Nineteen eighty-six’s Platoon, 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam and Full Metal Jacket, as well as 1989’s Casualties of War – itself based on a true event like The Kill Team.
So, it is hard to blame cynics who follow Scottish Comedian Frankie Boyle’s quote – “Not only will America go to your country and kill all your people; they’ll come back 20 years later and make a movie about how killing (them) made their soldiers sad.” The Vietnamese, Laotians, Iraqis, Kurds, and more become incidental victims to one American’s moral battle. Can The Kill Team break forth out of this shell? Or is one more for the pile?
One cannot fault the technical quality at least – the film throws in some nice flourishes (helicopter shots) and juxtapositions (what sounds like gunfire turns out to be a suburban sprinkler). Otherwise the editing and direction are serviceable – few fancy tricks in favor of a legible camera flow. It also makes good use of its sets and locations, whereas other films – both lesser and even better – have had trouble hiding the fact their locations were not the same as in the story. Thankfully The Kill Team does a good job at getting an authentic look.
The same applies to the soldiers’ uniforms and equipment, where perhaps more accomplished military experts can spot any flaws. The soldiers themselves do not stick out so much though, and not because of good camouflage. It might be because the film is trying to stick to facts than making up colorful characters, but outside of Deeks and Briggman, they are rather nondescript. Just regular dudes made to do extraordinary/awful things on the battlefield because of military conditioning. Like in the other war films.
They do serve to make Briggman and Deeks stand out by comparison. If only because Deeks is different, and Briggman is kind of bland. He does not banter as much, nor smoke weed. He has a character, in that he wants to serve his country on the field, gets angry, and is caught in difficult moral quandaries even before the killing starts. Yet he is a reactive protagonist, in that if there was not an antagonist, he would have faded into the background. Just one more grunt out of many. Wolff plays him amiably enough, though he does not have much to work with.
So, it is no surprise that Briggman’s best scenes tend to be when he is around Deeks – the previously mentioned antagonist. He teases that killer instinct out of Briggman like the rest of the unit, ensuring their loyalty by testing it regularly. He is not some manic, Sgt Hartman type; he is colder and calculating, rarely raising his voice even on the field. Yet he makes an impression on the audience as well as his unit. Skarsgård plays him with a sinister charisma that seems to raise the tension of each scene when his character appears. Sometimes enticing, often dangerous, and always interesting.
The story is a solid, dramatic take on the true events, with an intriguing bad guy bringing out the best in its otherwise standard good guy and turning soldier bros into dangerous figures. The film runs at a good pace, especially once suspicions start rising. Still, The Kill Team is unlikely to waver a cynic’s hardened heart. After all, the dead Afghans remain incidental, a device to make the one American soldier (Briggman) sad.
Ultimately, The Kill Team is an effectively done thriller that remains intriguing, albeit more so when its villain takes center stage. It may not revitalize the spirits of anyone burnt out on war films, but fans of the genre should enjoy its twists and turns. Which is why Cryptic Rock gives it 4 out of 5 stars.