Atrocities don’t exist in a vacuum, and “The Kill Team” is most valuable — and chillingly effective — as an exposé of the means by which honorable young military men grow comfortable with perpetrating heinous crimes. Based on his 2013 documentary of the same name (and, thus, a true story), writer-director Dan Krauss’ narrative retelling depicts the methodical murderous inculcation of a young American soldier in 2010 Afghanistan, led by a committed performance from Nat Wolff and a scarily sociopathic Alexander Skarsgård. Those star turns should help make the difficult film an easier sell to mainstream audiences when, after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere, it receives a theatrical release courtesy of A24.
As with the earlier nonfiction version, Krauss’ film concerns the Maywand District murders, in which a “kill team” of U.S. soldiers stationed in the Kandahar Valley executed a number of Afghan civilians and then covered up their crimes by staging the scenes to look like attacks. The writer/director doesn’t deviate from the facts of the case, but he has changed its players’ names, beginning with protagonist Andrew Briggman (Wolff). Eager to make a difference, he’s a typical rah-rah kid, albeit one with a conscience that won’t keep quiet. Its voice grows louder after the arrival of new Staff Sergeant Deeks (Skarsgård), who unlike his predecessor, isn’t interested in winning hearts and minds so much as eradicating any threats to his men’s safety.
With a cool, calm demeanor that belies his sadistic tendencies (initially hinted at via his leg tattoos, which denote his numerous kills), Skarsgard’s Deeks is a slyly sinister authority figure. “The Kill Team” spends its first half dramatizing how Deeks’ conduct — and the situation at hand — repeatedly pushes Briggman to think that a homicidal ethos is not only justified, but warranted. “We kill people. That’s what we do,” Deeks counsels his young charges, while initiating their assignments with comments like, “Good hunting!” and, “Who’s ready to have some fun?” By casting their behavior as both enjoyable and writing-history noble, Deeks reinforces the idea that slaughter is okay and, moreover, righteous — a notion bolstered by the routine sight of mutilated soldiers, as well as anecdotes about normal-looking Arab families driving cars full of explosives.
Those impressions soon compel Briggman to accept his comrade’s comment, “You don’t win a war zip-tying people,” which has already been taken to heart by fellow grunt Rayburn (Adam Long). “The Kill Team” is best when plumbing the psychological stew that begat the Maywand District murders, as Briggman’s mounting disapproval of his squad’s tactics is muddled by his jealousy over Deeks’ selection of Rayburn as his new pet, and also his own fear — once he begins messaging his former Marine dad (Rob Morrow) about what’s taking place — of being discovered as a rat. Complicity soon follows, further complicating matters.
As Briggman’s paranoia escalates, so too does “The Kill Team’s” suspense, although not enough to push the material into truly harrowing territory. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematographic vision of this arid landscape is relatively familiar and straightforward, and Zacarías M. de la Riva’s score is most notable during those rare moments when it strains too hard to elicit an emotional response. Those familiar with this story won’t find any novel twists here, but Krauss astutely conveys the literal and moral quagmires produced by such military situations. In that cause, he’s aided by an increasingly disillusioned, confused, and terrified Wolff, and an intensely menacing Skarsgård, who — flashing spiteful smiles beneath a ’70s-era mustache, and exuding a relaxed confidence that belies his coiled-spring viciousness — proves that wickedness sometimes comes in friendly fatherly packages.