The Kill Team Review: A heart-pounding and haunting narrative debut for Krauss
In 2013, writer/director Dan Krauss created a documentary called The Kill Team that delved into how warfare can weigh and break the mindsets of young soldiers and how it led one team to kill innocent civilians to justify their anger. In 2019, Krauss utilizes this story to craft his narrative film debut, with the same title as his documentary, to create a pure nail-biting experience that’s gripping and heartbreaking to watch.
The film follows a young army soldier, Andrew (Nat Wolff), and his fellow soldiers after they lose their staff sergeant from a terrible incident. Angry and upset that it seems like their attempts to keep civility with Afghanis around them, their new staff sergeant, Deeks (Alexander Skarsgard), taps into these feelings to have them take out their animosity on innocent civilians. While most of the group loves this outlet for their aggression, Andrew sees these acts as disturbing and as cold-blooded murder. Andrew decides to report these things to his father (Rob Morrow) but is eventually caught up in a paranoia as the group discovers a rat in their mix. So, Andrew is now faced with a moral dilemma as he has to decide whether to join the group in their horrifying acts to keep hidden or stand against them and possibly end up with those that they kill.
The idea of Krauss using the story he found within his documentary is an interesting choice as it works both for and against the film at times. With Krauss utilizing the true story, there’re some elements that feel real and it adds a level of authenticity to the events that are happening. The emotions and motivations, while terrible and immoral, are oddly understandable and Krauss able to tap into the tone and mindset the soldier’s environment presents because of how well he knows this story. It’s a choice and background that thankfully doesn’t feel as if he’s using or benefiting off of the terrifying true story, but rather creating a companion piece to the doc and creating a strong incentive to look deeper into the real story.
However, where Krauss’ familiarity works against him is with the film’s reliance on this singular premise as it constantly falls back on predictable narrative beats. While definitely has incredibly tense moments and some that literally left clenching my fists in suspense, there’s some predictability to certain scenes that can take viewers out of the moment. The use of obvious dream sequences and narrative beats seen in other war films makes the film lose it’s uniqueness. Not to mention, the way that Krauss shows Deeks at the end wasn’t as satisfying and didn’t fit the arc that was presented. For most of the film, he’s pretty calm and collected, but at the end he’s just so crazed and it really takes away from the strong aspects of the character and Skarsgard’s excellent performance – and boy is it great.
Skarsgard and Wolff put in absolutely amazing performances that create a sense of tension that will keep viewers engaged from start to finish. Watching Wolff as Andrew is like actually seeing someone slowly break and his story is very touching because of how real Wolff makes it feel. The dilemma he faces in stay quiet or speaking up is perfectly touched upon with how the group treats them and the strong performances from them as well. Honestly, it’s almost as if the group already knows that Andrew is the rat, but don’t want to lose the thrill of the chase and break him down so much that he’ll eventually join him. It’s this kind of psychological deep dive about the soldiers and their mental state that makes The Kill Team so strong and it presents some interesting themes about masculinity that stem directly from their war crimes, how it affects them, and how Deeks normalizes it.
For the group, killing is almost a release for them and it makes their mentality of “kill one of theirs, save ten of ours” more complex than ever and the film does a great job exploring the more primal and primitive masculine feelings the group feels and that these violent acts bring out. It’s a mentality that’s been seen in other films, but here the group is so open about it that it really leaves an imprint on you and it’s a little hard not to understand their feeling a bit. While definitely don’t comply or accept their horrible acts, when you see your friends and as it’s generally said in the military, your brothers, die day after day it leaves its mark on you. There’s no good reason for the group to be killing innocent civilians to justify their beliefs, but Skarsgard is such a strong authority figure and mental element to the film that you almost believe in his thoughts at times.
Outside of the out of character moments for Deeks at the end, Skarsgard delivers a performance more horrifying and scarier than anything you’ll find in most horror movies. He’s so open about his motivation from previous tours and why he feels that its right that he’s incredibly proud of himself and carries this idea that he’s above the law. Yet, he keeps this calm demeanor about it and even when he knows that Andrew has ratted on them, it’s as if he knows that he’s going to still get away with it and that he has all the power. There’s an evil charm to him that makes him oddly likable and he brings his dominating sense of power to the film and leaves such a strong imprint on the other soldiers that you can still feel his presence even when he’s not on-screen. It’s definitely one my favorite performances from him and of the year and is the kind of performance that burrows into your brain to keep you thinking about it for days on end.
The Kill Team definitely has its faults and flaws from its familiar narrative beats, but definitely shows that Krauss has some promise as narrative director and writer. The performances from Skarsgard and Wolff, alone, make the film a can’t miss experience and you’ve never seen them better. It delivers thrills and heart-pounding moments that leave their marks on viewers and make it worth even checking out the true story the film’s based on, which is possibly even more horrifying.