An young American soldier faces a moral dilemma when his commanding officer starts to use questionable methods in their missions.
I saw this film at the 2019 Traverse City Film Festival. Most of the films I watched over the weekend were still searching for distribution, so when this film started, and A24’s logo flashed across the screen, I immediately sat forward in my seat. A24 is, in my humble opinion, quickly becoming one of the biggest powerhouses in independent cinema; if they thought the film I was about to see was worth distributing, I knew I was in for a treat.
As the film started, I could almost immediately tell a difference in quality between “The Kill Team” and many of the other films I’d watched over the weekend. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; Dan Krauss’ directing is subtle and efficient; and Alexander Skarsgard (“Long Shot”) gives one of the finer performances of his career, perfectly balancing charming and terrifying (I still haven’t watched HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’, but I know he’s supposed to be great in that too). This was my favorite film I saw at the Traverse City Film Festival.
“We kill people here. Are you okay with that?”
Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff, “Grandma (2015)”) has dreamed of being a soldier, but when he finally gets to his station in Afghanistan, he quickly finds that the army is nothing like he imagined it would be. Though he finds comradeship with some of his squad members like Rayburn (Adam Long, “Dunkirk”) and Combs (Jonathan Whitesell, “Hold the Dark”), he has trouble reconciling with some of the moral grey areas in which his staff sergeant Deeks (Skarsgard) forces them to wade. As the situations get more volatile, Briggman has to make a choice as to how he will handle the situation.
This film brilliantly portrays one man’s vision of what America is, does, and stands for declining rapidly into harsh reality; this is not a fun or easy watch, but it’s important. It shows us Americans the truths that we might not be willing to face, and it also show us the pent-up toxic masculinity and murky grey areas that come with our Army being stationed in hostile areas for long amounts of time. This was based on a true story that needed to be told, to force Americans to reevaluate their own preconceived notions about what it is we were doing over in Afghanistan. Director Dan Krauss also helmed the 2013 documentary “The Kill Team”, which focuses on the same subject and has interviews with Private Adam Winfield, whom is essentially Andrew Briggman in this film.
When we first meet Andrew he’s playing with a skateboard in his room, pretending the board is a rifle and he is a soldier entering combat. His veteran father shares a cigarette with him, lighting his own cigarette with the one his son already has lit (a symbolic passing of the torch gesture). As he walks through the airport in uniform, he passes a man who salutes him, and Andrew smiles. We get a sense that he has in his head an idea that life in the Army will full of adventure and heroics, but as soon as he arrives at camp, all he does is check civilians for cellphones and bomb parts. Life quickly becomes a hot, dreary, monotonous existence, but after Andrew’s staff old sergeant is killed, and Deeks is called in, he starts to see more action and, as Deeks says, he starts “making an actual difference.”
Deeks’ persona is built up around him in a great way. He’s mysterious nature often leads to his personality being wrought with dichotomy. He has skull tattoos on his legs depicting the number of people he’s killed, but he wears a pink apron with a rabbit on it that says ‘Bad Hare Day’ when he’s grilling. There are stories about how Deeks coldly killed an entire family including their young children to stop a car careening towards their base, but when Andrew walks in on Deeks’ Skype conversation with his son, Deeks is incredibly tender, even blowing his son a kiss goodbye. We’re left to wonder if Deeks is actually a bad person, or if being in this situation has just turned him into a person that’s capable of being both a loving individual to those he cares about and a merciless, calculating coldblooded killer at the same time. I suppose that’s the definition of a psychopath.
As much as I really enjoyed Skarsgard’s performance as Deeks, I thought Wolff was just decent as Briggman. While Wolff plays the soldier part well, when it gets into the more emotional stuff, where he’s really wrestling with his conscious, or talking with his father about some of the rougher stuff he’s seen, his acting is good, not great. There are certainly scenes that wade shallowly into melodrama.
As the story goes on, Andrew becomes aware that the members of his squad are killing some Afghani civilians as a way to terrorize the other civilians into revealing the locations of buried bombs. Though the civilians are unarmed, Deeks has worked out a way so that he they will never get caught, planting guns on those they murder. In Deeks’ mind, they are aiding and abetting criminals, and in America, he reminds Andrew, those that aid and abet terrorists could be executed. Deeks rationalizes that killing one of the civilians saves ten of their men; in his eyes, it’s not even a question of what is the right thing to do.
This situation puts Andrew into a moral grey area in which he has to constantly wrestle with questions of loyalty to the country he vowed to serve, and basic human decency. This intensifies as Andrew becomes paranoid that his squad knows he’s having conversations with his father about what to do with the situation. He doesn’t know who to trust, nor does he know if his squad is onto the fact that he isn’t alright with what’s going on.
Our of all the pictures I saw this weekend at the Traverse City Film Festival, I’m most likely to recommend this film. While it isn’t prefect, “The Kill Team” is an important story that is crafted with a great amount of finesse, and it certainly forces the viewers to take a long hard look at their own thoughts on the war in Afghanistan.
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