Based on his 2013 documentary of the same name, Dan Krauss' The Kill Team follows the case of a 21-year-old Army private in Afghanistan who witnessed war crimes committed by his platoon, but failed to get the Criminal Investigation Division Command (or CID) to look into it, despite his father's help in alerting the right people. The film is a rumination on the moral and systemic failures of the military, which didn't step in promptly to investigate, but it's also about the culture of coercion and intimidation within the individual platoon itself. The soldier himself wound up becoming both a whistleblower and a perpetrator, and Krauss is fascinated by the conditions that would make such a contradiction possible.
The movies have been down this particular road before, most notably in Brian De Palma's superb Casualties of War, another fact-based story about the war crimes perpetuated by a unit and the staff sergeant who goes to terrifying lengths to keep a conscientious private from speaking out about it. The devil is in the filmmaking details: De Palma and his cast brought the terrors of the incident to vivid life through gripping performances and the almost operatic bravado of the direction, which heightened the tragedy and emotional stakes. By contrast, Krauss takes on the assignment with the relative artlessness of documentary filmmaking, following the tick-tock of events without putting much spin on the ball. He gets the job done — no more, no less.
It doesn't help that he has a weak lead in Nat Wolff, a gifted actor and singer who nonetheless struggles to suggest the inner turmoil of a gung-ho private whose naive goals of "making a difference" are quickly undercut by the realities on the ground. Wolff has the difficult work of playing a young man rendered helpless by circumstance, equally unable to prevent atrocities from happening on his watch and to report the men responsible. Aside from the moments when he tries haplessly to take action, his struggle with his conscience has to register on his face, and Wolff's deer-in-headlights expressions don't bring enough of it across.
The bare-bones storytelling — the film's running time doesn't crest 90 minutes — does allow for a headlong rush into the action, however, with Wolff's Andrew Briggman whisked from his suburban home to a platoon stationed in Kandahar Valley in 2009. For Briggman's fellow privates, who long to see action, boredom is a prompt for cruelty and macho ritual, but their staff sergeant keeps them in line, insisting that good relations with the locals are crucial to staying safe. But when the sergeant dies in an IED explosion, his replacement, Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), openly encourages their worst habits. Deeks promises them that they'll all have the chance to be "warriors," which means he'll give them the green light to shoot any unarmed civilian who looks at them sideways. Hearts and minds be damned.
The change in leadership puts Briggman in a tough spot. He initially alerts his father (Rob Morrow), who wants to get CID involved, but with Deeks and his fellow soldiers completely on board with the murders, it would be too easy for them to snuff out a "rat." The most arresting scenes in The Kill Team have an I-know-you-know-and-you-know-I-know quality: The sergeant and the rest of the platoon don't trust Briggman and vice versa, so there's a lingering threat of violence that maintains the status quo. When Briggman's fellow privates drag him to the shooting range and make him go out and reset the targets, he just might get some friendly fire to the back.
As Deeks, Skarsgård does standout work as a master manipulator who knows how to ingratiate and intimidate to keep his men in line. When he catches them smoking marijuana, he promises them a better strain of weed; when they're hungry, he'll slap on a chef's apron and grill them up a juicy piece of steak. And when he's abducted a suspect for a little extrajudicial interrogation, he'll make sure all of them participate in the torture session. What's frightening about Skarsgård's performance as Deeks is that his monstrousness seems entirely in the flow of the day, executed with the confidence of someone who's certain he'll get away with everything. And who, beyond that, believes himself to be right.
The Kill Team comes out at an ideal time for considering how the military and the government handle such accusations of war crimes. Earlier this summer, former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was acquitted of first-degree murder charges, despite members of his own team going to extraordinary lengths to curb his alleged atrocities in the field and insist on pushing for a court martial. Yet Krauss cannot bring this story through with the necessary urgency, despite the additional wrinkle of a hero who is both alarmed by and complicit in his superior's crimes. His predicament is an ulcer that should burn much hotter.