2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Intense and raw, danger lurks around every corner in “The Kill Team.” In an unusual turn, it’s not just enemy combatants that traumatize our soldier protagonist, but his fellow brothers in arms. Filmmaker Dan Krauss, in adapting his documentary of the same name, has added drama without sacrificing the power of his true tale. Two tremendous performances and some strong cinematography make this an uncompromising yet essential festival offering.
“The Kill Team” shares some cinematic DNA with “The Hurt Locker,” as it’s far more concerned with soldiers’ psychology than gun battles with unseen adversaries. Not only does this give the actors more to work with, but it also allows audiences to really feel for their plight. Some characters would fall into hero or villain categories in another version of this story, but Krauss refuses to make it that simple.
Thrilled to be following the footsteps of his father (Rob Morrow) and joining the military, Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) wants nothing more than to be a hero. Deployed to Afghanistan, he’s initially tasked with building relations between the soldiers and the Afghani citizens. The death of a Sergeant leads to Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård) taking over the position, and he has a far different agenda. Less concerned with winning hearts and minds, he wants to find and kill those who have been planting IEDs. Deeks’ intensity, as well as the way he can disarm audiences with unexpected kindness, captures Briggman’s attention. Then, on a patrol, he witnesses Deeks and other members of the company committing heinous acts.
Caught between his sense of right and wrong, the yearning for validation from Deeks, and wanting to belong among his unit, Briggman quickly becomes increasingly paranoid. As the unit finds out he might have reported potential crimes, they shun him. So, too, does Deeks, though he goes so far as to threaten Briggman’s life. Convinced his death is imminent, he not only has to survive patrols but look both ways whenever one of his so-called “brothers” approaches him. It all builds to an intense finale that likely will leave one as angry as it does sad.
Alexander Skarsgård and Nat Wolff are at their absolute best here. The duo are tasked with playing parts they’ve never tackled before, both of which they ace. Skarsgård mixes charisma and sociopathic tendencies in a hypnotic turn that stuns. Fervently aware of his malicious intent, but at the same time, completely believe why his soldiers would unabashedly follow him. He’s tremendous here. Wolff is just as good, taking audiences along as he descends into paranoia and utterly breaks down. He’s a smart, young talent but the sequences where Deeks essentially warps him, one can easily see why Briggman never had a chance.
Dan Krauss impressively transitions his own documentary into drama with great results. The themes from the documentary remain, though here he can depict elements he simply couldn’t previously. A few gun battles, along with at least one shocking death, help raise the stakes and truly keep you on the edge of your seat. In under 90 minutes, Krauss tells a complete story, one that rarely lets up. Stéphane Fontaine‘s cinematography is intimate, especially when it comes to Wolff. As mentioned above, his face often conveys everything you need to know. Kudos to Krauss for challenging himself like this and for succeeding like he has.
There’s so much to love about “The Kill Team.” Riveting in its intensity as well as a tremendous showcase for Skarsgård and Wolff, this is the best Tribeca has put forward so far in 2019. A24 has this one and is a perfect home for the movie. Look for it potentially later on this year. Whenever it does hit, it’s a film well worth seeking out.