“Blue Caprice” is a chillingly plausible and responsibly handled attempt to dramatize the disturbing bond between the two men behind the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Precision-honed performances and a nonsensationalistic approach distinguish this impressive first feature from French helmer Alexandre Moors, which avoids pat explanations as it offers a speculative glimpse into murderous minds. With the debate over gun violence and its root causes back in the media spotlight, “Caprice” already has generated a fair amount of publicity, which should only improve the otherwise limited commercial prospects for this grim, bruising psychological drama.
Ten people were killed, and three critically injured, when 40-year-old John Allen Muhammed and his 17-year-old partner, Lee Malvo, embarked on their three-week killing spree, randomly targeting civilians in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia in the fall of 2002. Moors and screenwriter R.F.I. Porto run the risk of controversy for choosing to focus so exclusively on the psychology of the killers, though the filmmakers’ aim is transparently to illuminate rather than to exploit, to bring a measure of sobering clarity to the question of human evil.
Lee (Tequan Richmond) is a lonely, quiet teenager living on the Caribbean island of Antigua when he’s abandoned by his single mom, apparently not for the first time. Wandering the near-empty streets and beaches, he has a fateful encounter with an older man, John (Isaiah Washington), who immediately establishes himself as a sort of father-protector figure, helping the boy perfect his English and eventually bringing him with him to Tacoma, Wash. Yet what initially looks like a mutually fulfilling bonding experience soon starts to give off unsettling vibes.
John is a man of seething, indiscriminate rage, although he reserves his deepest hostility for the ex-wife who took out a restraining order against him and their children. Genuinely affectionate around small kids, John takes a sterner fatherly tack with Lee, subjecting the teen to his violently anarchic rants and ordering him to prove his love for him through criminal acts. When Lee turns out to be a natural at the shooting range they visit with John’s old Army pal, Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), John looks on with silent approval.
Washington gives a performance at once scarily authoritative and finely modulated, releasing his character’s anger in carefully measured increments; when John ties Lee to a tree and abandons him as part of some bizarre soldier-training regimen, his actions seem both tender and abusive. Yet Richmond, best known for “Everybody Hates Chris,” is no less mesmerizing in a virtually silent screen performance that makes use of slackerish body language. Acting with virtually his eyes alone, he manages to convey the bitterness and damage of Lee’s past, as well as his frightening malleability in John’s hands.
Over the course of a fleet 93 minutes, Moors expertly juggles character insight with a keen attention to process, as John purchases the titular blue Chevy Caprice in which he and Lee will make their journey eastward, with a Bushmaster .223 rifle in tow. The shocking attacks themselves are relegated to an extended montage in the picture’s final minutes, and for all the intimacy the film has established with its characters leading up to this point, the effect is not identification or complicity, but a sense of abject horror.
Throughout, Moors and Porto plant seeds that flirt with and ultimately frustrate any simplistic explanations for “what caused this.” Lee is shown playing a first-person shooter vidgame, but the scene is presented with no special emphasis or implication. He and John often spend time with Ray and his wife (Joey Lauren Adams), hinting that theirs is not a completely antisocial vacuum. Malvo, now serving six life sentences, stated in 2012 that Muhammed (who was executed in 2009) had sexually abused him, a claim that is neither supported nor refuted here. In the end, one is left to conclude that whatever external forces may have contributed, it was the uniquely toxic commingling of their personalities — each one coaxing the other in turn — that pushed Malvo and Muhammed toward their monstrous crimes.
The low-budget tech package is pro in all departments. D.p. Brian O’Carroll’s widescreen lensing captures Antigua’s balmy beauty in the early scenes, a pervasive sense of brokenness and decay in the lengthy Tacoma midsection. The wide-ranging soundtrack includes a fair number of classical selections, most memorably Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20, lending gravitas to the TV coverage of the attacks that opens the picture.