In 2001, the United States began to wage the endless War in Afghanistan. In 2006, the U.S. Army retired the most enduring slogan it had ever used — “Be All that You Can Be” — and replaced it with “Army of One.” It didn’t take. So the marketing team went back to the drawing board and came back with a tagline so popular that it would be in active service for the next 12 years: “Army Strong.”
It was short, it was aspirational, and — unlike the two previous slogans — it shifted focus away from the soldier. “Army Strong” wasn’t about self-improvement or individual power, even if it subtly promised to confer those things on all who heeded the call. It was saying, in brute terms, that the Army is strength. That must have been a difficult message to internalize for the soldiers who were sent halfway across the world just to flex their country’s muscles. How were they supposed to restore the might that made sense of their mission?
Some version of that question has haunted Dan Krauss since at least 2013, when his powerful documentary “The Kill Team” explored the circumstances behind an infamous series of murders that U.S. soldiers committed against Afghan civilians in the Kandahar Province. But with the war in Afghanistan still raging six years later, Krauss hasn’t been able to move on. If anything, he’s only grown more committed to sharing what that story has to say about the atrocities that can happen when soldiers don’t feel culpable for the army they serve, or the killing they do in its name. With his new narrative film, also called “The Kill Team,” Krauss is effectively cranking up the volume on a story that he’s desperate for people to hear. As lucid and intense as it is underwritten, his second crack at the Maywan District murders might be much less nuanced than his first, but this riveting thriller still manages to amplify its subject much louder than Krauss has been able to before.
The recruitment poster that Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) has tacked to his bedroom wall asks: “Are you Army Strong?” And the kid seems to think that he knows what that means — everything he does feels like an affirmative answer to that question. Smoking on the porch with his father on the night before he reports for duty, Andrew says that going to Afghanistan is “his chance.” His chance to be more of a man than his desk jockey dad? His chance to do something with the biceps he’s build from doing thousands of push-ups? It’s unclear.
But then, three weeks after a tragic explosion kills the kind-hearted man who was leading his unit, Andrew meets someone who spells everything out for him in the simplest of terms. His name is Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), he’s basically the scariest alpha male alive, and he tells the soldiers that in exchange for their loyalty he will grant them “the chance to be a warrior. The chance to actually do something out here. To be a part of history, instead of just reading about it in some book.”
Wide-eyed and eager to prove himself, Andrew immediately starts campaigning for Deeks’ approval. He’s a nice kid with a good head on his shoulders (Wolff’s performance comes right from his conscience), but he’s willing to wade through an ocean of toxic masculinity if it means his superior’s approval and an opportunity to be team leader. If Deeks orders Andrew to wrestle a fellow recruit for the job he wants, then so be it. That’s just the way things are done on the base; none of these guys have watched “Beau Travail.”
In a very unambiguous film that’s defined by the stark contrast between yellow sand and a deep blue sky (“Jackie” cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine shoots “The Kill Team” with the hyper-saturation of an Instagram Story from Hell), the most striking mismatch of all is that between Andrew and Deeks. All mustached bravado, performative volatility, and cult-like manipulation, Deeks is the kind of character who Skarsgård could play in his sleep, but that doesn’t make his appearance here any less effective. He has a chilling effect on everyone under his command — he scares them into feeling like they want to be on his side. The soldiers feel they are fulfilling their duty to the Army by acting as extensions of their sergeant’s sociopathic ethos, and the most effective aspect of Krauss’ film is how palpable it allows that dynamic to become.
Andrew is more cipher than character, and “The Kill Team” does itself a great disservice by making him such an uncomplicated lamb in the face of Deeks’ bloodthirsty wolf, but it’s still harrowing to watch the new recruit scramble for some firm moral ground to stand on once the other men in his unit start killing civilians behind closed doors. The straightforwardness of Krauss’ script can be limiting, but it works to the film’s advantage whenever Deeks tries to justify his actions. It may not be right to kill “10 of them to save one of us” (the morality of that rationale is as questionable as its math), but it’s clear that the sergeant has internalized that logic at the deepest levels of his soul.
While Krauss is too skittish about the specifics and struggles to dramatize Andrew’s decision to blow the whistle on his brothers, he clings tight to the ethical compromises at work, and runs them all the way up the ladder. In the film’s most blunt and powerful scene, Andrew catches up with a fellow soldier a few hours after the latter has taken his first life. Earlier that day, the kid had been lost in a rush of hoo-rah adrenaline, but now — in the dark of night — he’s far more pensive. He gives Andrew a very clean and movie-workshopped monologue about the “conscience rounds” that firing squads use to solve an executioner’s misgivings; some people will only pull the trigger if there’s a chance they’ve loaded a blank. “It’s not ‘I’m shooting this person,’” the soldier says, “It’s ‘we’re shooting this person.’ Once you figure that out, you can shoot anybody you want and never lose any sleep.”
Deeks doesn’t turn his unit into “The Kill Team” because he can’t murder unarmed civilians by himself; he badgers them into it because he wants to spread the guilt so thin that he can’t even feel it on his skin. Without letting these men off the hook for their crimes, Krauss’ shines a harsh and bracing light on what it means to be on the frontlines of a war that we have been fighting since the turn of the century. Deeks may lead the way, but nobody can be Army Strong on their own.
A24 will release “The Kill Team” in theaters and on VOD on October 25.