One thing that can be learned from stories about war, especially those of the past 50 years, is that the situations are so awful, the camaraderie between soldiers becomes of utmost importance.
That’s why “The Kill Team,” opening Friday in Bay Area theaters and on video on demand, which tells a difficult story well, is so remarkable.
Decades ago, filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks told stories of men with codes of honor and characters that stuck by one another; those who didn’t were viewed as cowards, or worse, traitors.
In “The Kill Team,” writer-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, who directed a 2013 documentary by the same title, based his fictionalized screenplay on events in that film.
It begins with soldiers stationed in Afghanistan following orders to establish peaceful relations with locals, even handing out candy. But their kindhearted staff sergeant is blown to bits by an improvised explosive device.
Soft-spoken staff Sgt. Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård) arrives, with a trimmed mustache and iron command. He tells the men that if they follow him, he will make them warriors — no more soft stuff.
Being a warrior apparently involves shooting Afghani citizens in cold blood, then making up stories to justify the murders. The scenes are difficult to watch; Krauss’ camera focuses on the faces of the victims’ loved ones as they realize what’s happening.
Most of the soldiers 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 playing a character that has to look a little guilty and suspicious for the camera, but also must wear a blank slate for his cohorts.
At the same time, there’s the realization that Briggsy is not an actor and may not be good at keeping a poker face. It’s a fine line to walk, and Wolff can’t, and doesn’t, get it right 100 percent of the time, but he does an admirable enough job.
Skarsgård finds a intense, perfect middle ground, playing the psychopath without going too big or too small. Though calm and fatherly in scenes showing a sweet relationship with a young son back home, he always seems to have a thinly veiled threat waiting among his next words. Every scene he’s in carves out greater slabs of suspense.
Krauss keeps “The Kill Team” compact, razor-focused, tough, 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.
In a way, “The Kill Team” is similar to Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War” and Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” in that it’s a story of a man who chooses what he thinks is right in the face of peer pressure.
But 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.
The Kill Team
Three and a half stars
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nat Wolff, Adam Long, Jonathan Whitesell, Brian Marc
Written and directed by: Dan Krauss
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes