2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Kill Team’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in "The Kill Team"
Nat Wolff and Alexander Skarsgård in “The Kill Team” (Photo by Manolo Pavon/A24)

“The Kill Team”

Directed by Dan Krauss

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

In 2013, “The Kill Team” (directed by Dan Krauss) won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prize for Best Documentary Feature for its chilling chronicle of the Maywand District murders scandal, in which members of the U.S. Army were arrested in 2010 for murdering unarmed, innocent civilians during the war in Afghanistan. Krauss has revisited the story—this time, by writing and directing the dramatic, scripted film also titled “The Kill Team,” which is based on real-life events but using fictional names of the real people involved. Whereas the documentary (which was released by The Orchard in 2014) spends a lot of time explaining why this tragedy happened, the scripted feature film does something even more disturbing: It shows how it happened in the first place.

“The Kill Team” documentary, which includes interviews with several of the soldiers involved, takes place entirely after the arrests of the soldiers. The documentary is set not in a combat zone, but in the type of conference rooms and offices where defense attorneys or therapists meet with their clients, as the defendants prepare for their cases to be resolved. The “Kill Team” scripted feature film takes place almost entirely before the arrests, and brings the viewers directly into the environment that created the horrific “Kill Team” mentality to murder people for thrills.

The main protagonist in both films is the young specialist who enters the Army as a wide-eyed, eager-to-please rookie and leaves the Army as a disillusioned, broken man wracked with guilt over his participation in the murders. In real life, that man is Adam Winfield, whose name has been changed to Andrew Briggman in “The Kill Team” scripted film. In the beginning of the movie, Andrew (played by Nat Wolff) is excited and proud to join the Army, since his father is an Army vet who served honorably.

Andrew has a close relationship with his loving parents, William and Laura (played by Rob Morrow and Anna Francolini)—and it’s a relationship that plays a pivotal part later on in the story. However, Andrew is in for a rude awakening when he leaves the supportive cocoon of his middle-class family and goes off to war in Afghanistan. Early on, Andrew experiences the brutality of war when he and other squad members witness their squad leader being killed by an improvised explosive device (IED). In addition, several of the other soldiers in his squad initially give Andrew a hard time—they think because of his scrawny physique that he’s a nerdy wimp who’s not cut out for combat.

Andrew and his college-age peers essentially have a fraternity-like existence, with each member jockeying for position and testing boundaries when it comes to egos, power and respect. They argue, but they also party together (smoking hashish is one of their preferred leisure activities), and they have varying degrees of expectations on how much violence they’ll commit while they’re on active duty.

The stakes in the team’s power plays get higher when the squad gets a new staff sergeant named Sergeant Deeks (played by Alexander Skarsgård), who is charismatic but extremely manipulative. He does what most toxic leaders do: He pits his subordinates against each other so that they can prove who is the most loyal to him, and those who “win,” get the most rewards and benefits from him. Deeks (who is based on the real-life Calvin Gibbs) makes it known to his squad that he’s looking for a trusted right-hand man, which sets off a competition to see who’s the toughest of the bunch to get that position. Andrew is eager to prove himself worthy of being Deeks’ second-in-command, and he surpasses Deeks’ expectations by fulfilling increasingly violent tasks that Deeks orders him to do.

The other members of the squad—including Rayburn (played by Adam Long), Coombs (played by Jonathan Whitsell), Marquez (played by Brian Marc), Weppler (played by Osy Ikhile) and Cappy (played by Oliver Ritchie)—join in on the mayhem, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance. Coombs in particular has an almost joyful zest in the violence that he causes, because he thinks war should be about “kicking ass,” and he thinks it’s boring for soldiers to have duties such as patrolling areas and protecting civilians.

On the surface, Deeks appears to be an accomplished and upstanding military man—he lovingly checks in on his wife and young son back home via Skype chats—but it’s a façade that masks a sadistic criminal who likes to kill for fun, and he has a total disregard for the law and U.S. military policies. The first sign of Deeks’ corruption is when he catches his subordinates smoking hash, but instead of reporting this punishable offense, he tells them that what they’re doing is wrong because he knows where they can get better-quality hash.

It isn’t long before Deeks lets his young subordinates in on some of his secrets: He’s gotten away with an untold number of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan, simply by lying and saying that the people attacked first and were killed because of self-defense. In many of the cases, Deeks admitted to planting weapons on the victims (which is called a “drop weapon” technique) to further perpetuate the lie that the killings were justified. Deeks has also kept body parts (such as fingers) of many of his victims, and he likes to pose for pictures next to their dead bodies, much like a hunter poses for photos with dead prey.

Some of Deeks’ subordinates are all too eager to join him on his murder sprees, if it means that they can rise through the military ranks with Deeks as their mentor. They call themselves “The Kill Team,” and become a twisted fraternity of soldiers looking for unarmed victims to murder, under the guise of being good military men who are eliminating the enemy at war. When some of the squad members show signs of guilt, they’re threatened by Deeks to keep silent, or else he’ll make sure they’ll be beaten up or killed. After all, Deeks has shown that he’s capable of not only committing these crimes but also covering them up and making the victims look like the aggressors. Deeks’ subordinates are isolated, far from home, and under the command of a dangerous and powerful leader, so it’s easy to see why they went along with his heinous actions in order to protect themselves.

We’ve seen villains in many war movies before—the Oscar-winning classics “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” for example, each features a corrupt leader who fits the mold of the gruff, scowling bully instilling fear in his subordinates. What makes “The Kill Team” villain Deeks even more insidious is that his dominance isn’t all by brute force—he barks commands, but he also presents himself as a smiling, older brother to be admired and whose approval is a reward that his subordinates are desperate to get, even if it means that their morality gets stifled or snuffed out in the process.

Deeks’ physical presence—tall, blue-eyed good looks, as embodied by Skarsgård—also has a lot to do with his powerful influence, because he fits many people’s image of an American military hero. Skarsgård brings complexity to the role by portraying Deeks as loathsome but also with a self-righteous magnetism that makes it convincing that he could manipulate other people into thinking what he wants them to think. The merits of this film are largely centered on authentically explaining how someone like Deeks could get away with so much horrific destruction—and Skarsgård successfully rises to the challenge. The Andrew Briggman character is less complex and more transparent than Deeks, but Wolff effectively portrays the morality crisis and emotional turmoil of a soldier whose world is turned upside down by the horrors of war and corrupted values.

Krauss and his team did a terrific job of recreating not only the Afghanistan war zones (the movie was actually filmed in Spain) but also the military weapons and automobiles (which were actually digital effects) that were shown in the movie. Although many people already know the real-life outcomes of the Maywand District scandal, Krauss builds a level of suspense and emotional tension that will leave an impact on viewers and serve as a painful reminder that serial killing in the context of war is an issue that will never be fully erased.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “The Kill Team” in select U.S. theaters and on VOD on October 25, 2019.