“War is hell” is the expression you hear most when people describe armed conflict. It’s apt, but that saying also ignores how some people put their thumb on the scales regarding how hellish war has to be. The War on Terror has created a nightmare for soldiers and civilians alike. Still, you wouldn’t know that from talking to Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), commander of the Kill Team.
To Deeks, he’s just doing a job so that he can go home back and do it all over again on his next tour. It’s not until Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) witnesses other soldiers in Sergeant Deeks’ division killing innocent Afghanis that war becomes real to either man. Briggman knows that he should report the murders to supervisors higher up the military food chain. But the increasingly erratic, violent nature of his platoon keeps him silent. As Sgt. Deeks becomes more paranoid, it’s clear to Briggman that he’ll be the next target.
It’d be comforting to say that the events of Kill Team take place much closer to 9/11, but the dark chapter isn’t so distant in time. In fact, the events that inspired writer/director Dan Krauss’ 2013 documentary chronicling the Maywand District Murders by U.S. soldiers take place only three years earlier, in 2010. Dan Krauss didn’t get to interview Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the man whom Skarsgård’s role is based on, though the necklace Gibbs wore made of human remains left little ambiguity about his character.
When sentenced to life with the possibility for parole, Gibbs didn’t say he regretted the actions that brought him there, only the human remains he wore as victory tags. By recreating the film’s events with Alexander Skarsgård and Nat Wolff, Dan Krauss can more effectively flesh out the character dynamic between Deeks and Briggman that wasn’t made possible in the documentary.
Given that Nat Wolff’s part in the film is to be intimidated by his sadistic ranking officer, it makes sense for Wolff to be the more passive character. And Wolff’s performance comes across as distant and underplayed. That’s a problem because his screen partner is the always electric Alexander Skarsgård. Throughout the film, Skarsgård dangles on the precipice between charming and sadistic, keeping Briggman and viewers on their toes. He’s able to hypnotize those who plot against him into a trance and violently dispatch them in the same breath.
Unlike other war films where the antagonist is portrayed as an anti-social malcontent, Skarsgård’s portrayal of Deeks is one grounded in the knowledge that he’s charismatic enough to recruit other soldiers to his poisoned worldview. Deeks offers men the opportunity “to be a part of history, instead of just reading about it in some book.” As Deeks rhetoric seeps into the mind of every person surrounding him, Krauss makes Briggman’s sense of horror palpable. He locks the audience into Briggman’s p.o.v. and keeps them trapped there until the end credits. As the film draws on, it feels like the camera moves in predatorily close to his face, putting him under investigation.
Like Jarhead, don’t go into Kill Team expecting a no-holds-barred actioner; the film is much more focused on exploring the cat-and-mouse game Deeks is playing with Briggman. The rest of the Kill Team are fleshed out just enough to provide commentary on the conflict between both men, but that’s it. For better or worse, the central conflict is laid out early on between Deeks and Briggman, and director Krauss doesn’t delve into commentary about the causes that push men to pull triggers or what put them there in the first place. Accordingly, Krauss’ narrative film loses the nuance that the documentary provides. But in bringing the story to a larger audience, that may have been a necessity. In making Briggman less indecisive about the call to turn in his squad, the film doesn’t allow for Deeks’ justifications for his crimes to take hold.
Krauss dismantles the notion of “Are you Army Strong?” through the slow dissolution of morality in a unit that comes from the top down. The man who previously led the group, now known as “Kill Team,” was a good man, but his death in an explosion casts aside fairness in the chain of command. An army is only as strong as its weakest member, and if they’re too weak to get the job done, the unit has to do whatever it takes to keep the unit strong. Including murder. As one soldier explaining conscience rounds to Briggman says, “It’s not ‘I’m shooting this person, it’s ‘we’re shooting this person. Chillingly, he adds, “Once you figure that out, you can shoot anybody you want and never lose any sleep.”