This is the second time filmmaker Dan Krauss has addressed the Maywand District incident of 2009-2010, in which a squad of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Valley killed local civilians and then restaged the scene to create the impression that their victims had been attacking them. The first was in his 2013 documentary called “The Kill Team,” which he now dramatizes in this feature under the same title.
The documentary focused on Adam Winfield, one of the accused soldiers, a private who had struggled with participating in the killings and had actually tried to alert the brass about what was happening, but ultimately succumbed to the pressure put on him and the other grunts by their sergeant. The Winfield figure, here called Andy Briggman (all the names have been changed) and played by Nat Wolff, is presented as a gung-ho recruit whose father (Rob Morrow), a former Marine, is proud of his son’s commitment to service.
At first the squad is led by a sergeant who encourages the men to treat the locals respectfully but is killed in an explosion. His successor Deeks (Alexander Skarsgard) is very different. Deceptively soft-spoken and serenely confident, he’s a compellingly seductive presence proud—as his tattoos demonstrate—of the kills he’s made and insistent that the soldiers under his command should learn to set aside conventional rules of ethics and follow his example. While Briggman struggles to deal with the atrocities that result, the other men—like Adam Long’s Rayburn—fall into line and enthusiastically conform to Deeks’s injunctions to think like hunters and have fun, since wars are won by killing, pure and simple.
Needless to say, when Briggman’s doubts become increasingly apparent and he’s suspected by his comrades of ratting them out—and he does, in fact, tell his father about what’s going on—he understandably becomes convinced that his fellow soldiers will stage an accident for him, and that Deeks would be happy, if not directly complicit in it. Krauss has fashioned some suspenseful sequences in which his fears are nearly played out.
“The Killing Team” follows a paradigm that is, sadly, fairly familiar from films about America’s recent wars; one of the most notable, though presented on a smaller interpersonal scale, was Brian De Palma’s underrated Vietnam-set “Casualties of War” (1989). Krauss avoids De Palma’s admittedly extreme visual flourishes, fashioning his story in a more unadorned style via Stephane Fontaine’s straightforward cinematography and Franklin Peterson’s equally effective but unobtrusive editing, which is, however, notably skillful in several sequences, such as the one in which Briggman is threatened in the field by his comrades.
Krauss also secures fine performances. Wolff conveys Briggman’s inner conflict with real feeling, and the other members of the squad—like Long’s Rayburn—while more one-dimensional, are persuasively macho. The real revelation, however, is Skarsgard, whose quiet menace under an imperturbable exterior is genuinely chilling. (The actual sergeant, a man named Calvin Gibbs, was eventually found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison, while Winfield and the other men received lesser terms.)
“The Kill Team” will not efface memories of other dramas about men who give in to the dark side under the stress of combat, or even of Krauss’s earlier documentary. It does represent, however, another potent expression of a theme that has become unhappily common in films about America’s recent wartime experience.