Based on true events from 2009, writer-director Dan Krauss's 'The Kill Team' concerns a group of soldiers whose frustration and rage at the death of colleagues was channelled into a campaign of terror in the Kandahar countryside. Led and allegedly manipulated by a rogue commanding officer, the unit executed randomly selected villagers, framing them after the fact as insurgents by planting weapons next to their bodies and concocting false battle reports.
Krauss previously explored this subject with a 2013 documentary of the same title, which took a close look at the Maywand District murders. He's changed the names throughout, beginning with real-life Private Adam Winfield, fictionalised here as Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff, 'Hereditary'). We meet Briggman in the States, miming threats against imaginary Afghans. His father, William (Rob Morrow, 'Begin Again'), worked a desk job in the U.S. Marines, and his son mentions wanting a similar chance to make a positive difference. The film sets up Briggman as the audience's surrogate, an eager and sensitive recruit who observes his fellow soldiers' actions almost from an outsider's perspective. He doesn't smoke hash with his fellow soldiers, and he doesn't, like them, begrudge the locals their different traditions and language. He also doesn't relish the opportunity to fight and kill.
'The Kill Team' opens with the death of the team's commanding officer, Sergeant Bruer, who is killed by an IED after instructing the men in his unit to wave to the Afghans and offer candy to children. After Bruer is killed, his unit is assigned a new commanding officer, Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård, who has played soldiers before in 'Battleship', 'Hold the Dark' and TV's 'Generation Kill'), an imposing, stone-faced figure who begins cultivating insecure attachments with the men under his command, bestowing and withdrawing favour (promotions, drugs, friendship) at a whim in order to make them dependent on his approval.
Deeks, the fictionalised version of the real commanding officer convicted of encouraging the young men to view all Afghans as animals, explains softly and plainly: "We kill people. That's what we do." Briggman averts his eyes, attempting to square the apparent truth of Deeks's warrior philosophy with the "hearts and minds" mission his unit had been sent out on by his previous commanding officer. 'The Kill Team' muddies things by giving us snapshots of a rural Afghan population whose hearts and minds are, as of 2009, very much not won over.
Deeks turns missions into hunts, compelling the men under his command to find an Afghan man to be shot. In these scenes, which frequently cut away from the actual act (Briggman stumbles across the men discussing their cover story over the body of a local man lying on the ground behind them), we can see echoes of police shootings and other American forms of authoritarian violence.
A story about toxic masculinity becomes less to do with bros with guns and more about how leadership in a small group can very easily be subverted, partially due to the absence of any authority from higher up.
The circle around Briggman tightens as the group of killers grow concerned that he will squeal on them. The lives of the villagers killed become of secondary concern, as suspense in 'The Kill Team' is increasingly driven by the question of whether Briggman will survive or be betrayed and murdered by his compatriots.
While director Krauss spent significant time with many of the real-life perpetrators for his documentary, the ringleader, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, refused to meet with him. For his feature film adaptation (and narrative film debut), Krauss decided to fictionalise how the unit was corrupted. 26-year-old Gibbs became the much older Deeks, who keeps pushing the limits of what the impressionable young men in his command would do for him (see: Tom Berenger as Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes in Oliver Stone's 'Platoon' or Sean Penn as Sergeant Tony Meserve in Brian De Palma's 'Casualties of War' for further reference). So a story about toxic masculinity becomes less to do with bros with guns and more about the increasingly sinister effects of groupthink and how leadership in a small group can very easily be subverted, partially due to the absence of any authority from higher up.
It's an interesting angle but, once Krauss hews back to the real-life events during the second half, these fictional and truthful elements sit uneasily alongside each other. One could also criticise the film for being relatively light in character development department, leaving the motivations of the key figures nebulous at best. Visually, it's striking but derivative: battle scenes are staged by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine with the same shaky handheld "urgency" as just about every other movie about American troops in the Middle East.
This all adds up to 'The Kill Team' falling into the large sub-category of thought-provoking but flawed modern war films set in the region, like Paul Greengrass' 'Green Zone', Alexandre Moors' 'The Yellow Birds', Nicolai Fuglsig's '12 Strong' and Doug Liman's 'The Wall'.
Still, Krauss's film depicts in stark terms the ways that war can strip souls of conscience, something made even more wrenching when viewed with the knowledge that it's based on horrific true events.