The Kill Team is an indie feature from A24 that was written and directed by Dan Krauss, and follows a young soldier named Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) through his time in the U.S. Army during the Iraq war. A few weeks after his unit’s Staff Sergeant accidentally steps on an IED during a routine op in Kandahar Valley in 2009, a new boss named Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård) is brought in to held the unit accomplish its daily tasks, assign new tasks to personnel, and generally set them back on a path towards where they were before. The only problem is that where they were before is not where Staff Sergeant Deeks would like to go, and in a drawn-out war so desperate for results, Briggman is pulled further and further into a web of moral ambiguity, tearing his conscience further apart with each new act of progress. Does he go along and justify the unit’s actions later, or does he turn in a man who he believes is a war criminal? If he chooses the former, he could lose the only thing left the war hasn’t taken from him already; if he doesn’t, he could lose his life. The film also stars Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, and Brian Marc.
I’d only barely heard of this film when it was released to Amazon Prime for rent just a week or two before viewing it, but I’d heard some pretty good things about it, the trailer was intriguing, and I’m always down to give some smaller, more contained films a chance to run with the theatrical releases (after all, I saw last year’s masterful Leave No Trace on streaming, and that ended up being my number two film of the whole year, meaning there is precedence for smaller releases to have a legit shot at the Top 10); plus, it’s from one of the most legitimately impressive independent studios working today in A24, so I decided I’d go ahead and check it out. I actually ended up really enjoying it, and while The Kill Team may not be the best movie it could possibly be, even with the tools in its arsenal, it is probably about as good as one could hope to expect given its small-scale nature, which allows it to operate mostly as a low-key performance vehicle for Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård, both of which are the two pillars carrying the film forward.
The film perhaps could have used a bit more substance wherein its narrative is concerned, but it’s not without thematic depth entirely. The story is compelling enough (what does one do when faced with a choice that could morally bankrupt them vs a choice that could cost one’s life, or worse – at least in terms of the U.S. military – one’s reputation), but it really is the performances that hold this little film together; the independent nature of the film means they make up the bulk of the movie’s substance. Hollywood being allowed to use military gear, designs, and official material rests on its contracts with the Pentagon, and the approval of those contracts rests on the notion that the U.S. military is not depicted in a negative manner, meaning only independent studios can really hope to tell these kinds of stories in the first place.
There aren’t many films made in the U.S. that actually have the balls to go for a story like the one present in The Kill Team given its still fairly recent setting, and certainly not many that have the further guts to actually call out malpractice within the military in any more than a tangential “we did what we needed to do to get the job done” way, such as the depictions of torture present in films like Katheryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty or other such projects. In fact, this might end up being a shorter review than usual, as apart from some pretty solid (though minimalist) production design, and a story a bit too thin to be able to talk about without running into spoiler territory (the film is based on true events), the performances are really all there is to talk about, given the film’s independent nature.
But there are some pretty solid performances to discuss, and Nat Wolff once again shows us that he has a lot more range in him than most of us expected. He’s taken quite a few supporting roles in a number of films before this, but it feels good to see him do well in a leading performance this time around, as he hasn’t had many opportunities to do that just yet on a mainstream level, apart from his brief leading man performance in the adaptation of Paper Towns. Wolff really sells his character’s conflict here incredibly well, and although there’s not much to his charazterization, his performance gives one just enough of a character that we’re still able to get invested in a kid who honestly could have just been “generic army soldier #1” if Wolff hadn’t been the one doing the soldiering.
The scene stealer, though, is Alex Skarsgård as Staff Sergeant Deeks. He seems off from the get-go, but after a little bit, you start to understand how a unit that just lost its leader could warm to someone who at first doesn’t show any hint of malicious intent or psychopathy. It’s when Skarsgård is really allowed to turn on the heat with his performance that things start to get tense, and at some points, I was genuinely scared for Nat Wolff’s character during his interactions with Deeks. Sure, it’s based on a real-life happening, but not knowing the true events meant I didn’t know what the outcome of those true events were, and even then, a solid movie can make you forget things you already know in the moment (like Lincoln, or Titanic). Skarsgård practically chews up the screen in this regard, and it’s a real treat to get to see him actually enjoy playing a character with some genuine pathos attached. Hopefully this indicates that he can finally get back to playing the roles he’s best: quietly menacing, but only because the “comforting” side of whatever character he plays just seems ready to snap at any moment. He’s really good here, and although I know for a fact that he won’t be up for any Oscars this awards season, he absolutely should be up for some independent considerations.
In the end, The Kill Team wasn’t exactly the movie it could have been, given its huge potential, but that’s totally okay. It’s good to have some smaller-scale movies in between the larger theatrical fare, and as it happens, the film is actually pretty good as well. The story has about as much thematic depth as the film has length, but the performances are really what this film is all about, and the two leading men turn in some of their best work. It may not be a Best Picture contender, but you could do worse for your indie cinema fix in 2019, so check this one out if you get the chance.
I’m giving “The Kill Team” a 7.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.