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With: Alexander Skarsgård, Nat Wolff, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc, Osy Ikhile, Rob Morrow, Anna Francolini, Oliver Ritchie
Written by: Dan Krauss
Directed by: Dan Krauss
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, violent content and drug use
Running Time: 87
Date: 10/25/2019

The Kill Team (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Private Sectors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One thing that can be learned from stories about war — especially the wars of the past fifty years — is that the situations are so awful, the camaraderie of soldiers becomes more important than anything else.

That's why a story like The Kill Team, opening Friday in Bay Area theaters, is so difficult to tell, and so remarkable when it's told well.

Back in the early days of more clear-cut wars, filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks told stories of men with codes of honor. Characters in their movies stuck by one another, and those who didn't were viewed as cowards, or worse, traitors.

Now with The Kill Team, writer and director Dan Krauss asks viewers to identify with a young soldier, Andrew "Briggsy" Briggman (Nat Wolff) as he begins questioning his platoon's behavior. It's a difficult line to walk: remaining loyal to your brothers, or doing the right thing.

Krauss also directed a 2013 documentary by the same title, and based his fictionalized screenplay on the events depicted in that film.

It begins as the men, stationed in Afghanistan, attempt to follow their latest orders, establishing peaceful relations with the locals, handing out candy, etc. But their kindhearted staff sergeant is blown to bits by an IED.

His replacement, Staff Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård) arrives, with a trimmed mustache, soft-spoken, but with an iron command. He tells the men that if they follow him, he will make them warriors. No more of this soft stuff.

Being a warrior, apparently, involves shooting Afghani citizens in cold blood, then making up stories to justify the murders. These scenes are difficult to watch; Krauss's camera rarely points at the killings. Rather, he watches the faces of the victims' loved ones as they realize what's happening.

Most of the men are energized by the drawing of blood, as if it were a rite of passage, but Briggsy is horrified. He texts his father, an ex-Marine that served his time behind a desk, and makes a choice that cannot be un-made.

The second half of the movie is like a suspense thriller, with Briggsy hoping no one knows his intentions, but with creeping moments of realization that, indeed, everyone does know.

Wolff (Stella's Last Weekend) is a good actor, but has a serious challenge. He's playing a character that has to look a little guilty and suspicious for the camera, but also must try to wear a blank slate for his cohorts.

Yet at the same time, there's the realization that Briggsy is not an actor, and may not actually be very good at keeping a poker face. It's a fine line to walk, and Wolff can't, and doesn't, get it right 100% of the time, but he does an admirable enough job.

Skarsgård is the movie's ace in the hole. Many actors can't play psychopaths without going too big or too small, but Skarsgård finds an intense, perfect middle ground.

He's calm and fatherly — he's shown to have a sweet relationship with a young son back home — but always seems to have a thinly veiled threat waiting among his next words. His every scene helps carve out ever greater slabs of suspense.

Director Krauss keeps The Kill Team compact and razor-focused, tough and hard and sun-baked in a way that recalls 2017's The Wall, as well as classic "B" films by Samuel Fuller, Don Siegel, and Anthony Mann.

The Kill Team is also similar in a way to Brian De Palma's Casualties of War and Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, in that it's a story of one man who chooses what he thinks is right over the peer pressure of his fellow soldiers.

While those movies were both fairly straightforward, Krauss doesn't completely declare Briggsy a hero. His choice is tough, far too tough for an 87-minute movie to smooth out, and it leaves a moral residue that can't entirely be scraped off.

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