Given the devastating recent history of mass shootings in the U.S., Alexandre Moors' debut feature Blue Caprice is nothing if not timely.
Blue Caprice is a speculative imagining of the events which led up to the so-called "Beltway Sniper" shootings in October 2002, in which former army soldier John Allen Muhammad and 17-year old Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the Washington D.C. metro area by committing random shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three others. The two of them, with Malvo as the trigger man, shot their victims through a hole in the trunk of a blue Chevrolet Caprice (the source of the film's title). Muhammad was eventually convicted of murder and executed in 2009, while Malvo was convicted as a teen offender and is now serving a lifetime prison sentence in Virginia.
In dramatizing these events, Moors admirably does not opt for exploitation and sensationalism. We only see one of these murders depicted on screen; the rest are rendered through voiceover 911 calls that bracket the film, heard over the menacing image of the blue Caprice traveling down the highway, the death machine that stuck so much fear in the period of the killings. Instead, the film concentrates on the twisted surrogate father/son relationship that developed between John and Lee and how their murderous plan came to fruition, rendered here in an icily detached manner.
The story begins in Antigua, where Lee (Tequan Richmond) lives with his mother. Eventually abandoned by her and left to fend for himself, he comes across John (Isaiah Washington), who is visiting the island with his three small children. In despair over his abandonment, Lee attempts to drown himself; John rescues him and takes Lee back with him to his home in Tacoma, Washington. John's children are taken away from him, as he was in violation of a custody agreement related to a bitter divorce from his ex-wife, who took out a restraining order against John to stay away from her and the children. John and Lee briefly stay with John's girlfriend Angela (Cassandra Freeman); John introduces Lee as his son, informally adopting him. John takes Lee around the neighborhood, beginning to inculcate into the young boy his rage against the world and against all the people he perceives to have wronged him.
When Angela, weary of John's incessantly articulated rage and seeming lack of motivation, throws the two out of the house, they end up at the home of John's army buddy Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) and his girlfriend Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams). Most pertinently for this story, this gives John access to Ray's arsenal of guns, where John teaches Lee target shooting; Lee takes to this quickly, and proves himself "a natural," in the words of an impressed Ray.
Later, as they are grocery shopping, John continues to express his seething anger, and comes up with the notion of getting his revenge by randomly shooting strangers over an extended period of time. When Lee is caught shoplifting by the store manager, John talks the manager out of pressing charges, promising to handle the matter himself. Soon after, John takes Lee out of the woods and ties him to a tree, leaving Lee to spend the night there alone. This act fuels Lee's feelings of dependence on John and his desperation to prove himself to his "father," which he does by committing his first killing, one of the relatives of a neighbor who testified against John during his divorce. Thereafter, the process of Lee being turned into a killing machine intensifies, as Lee studies a military sniper's manual and prepares for what is to come. John and Lee eventually make their way to Maryland, where John initially tries to find his ex-wife and his children; Lee talks him out of that, reminding him to stay focused on their mission of revenge. "I've created a monster," John says, with a chilling tone of admiration. They then embark on their killing spree.
Alexandre Moors, with the assistance of R. F. I. Porto's spare screenplay and Brian O'Carroll's moody cinematography, presents this disturbing tale with a self-consciously arty, elliptical style, and a coldly detached point of view which doesn't attempt to explain their actions or try to make us understand them. We are led to look upon them as specimens of inscrutable human behavior, which avoids clichéd tabloid spectacle, but also lends a rather shallow air to the proceedings. By putting us at such a clinical remove from its characters, one questions whether the filmmakers have anything to actually tell us about what truly motivates this sort of mass-scale violence. What we are left with is a stylistic exercise which does little to enlighten us or illuminate its subject.
However, what cannot be faulted are the impressive performances by Washington and Richmond as the killers; Washington beautifully expresses the internalized rage of John Allen Muhammad with a slow-burn intensity that compels us without making his character sympathetic. Richmond is equally impressive, with a nearly silent performance that wonderfully conveys the transformation of this lonely, vulnerable boy into a hardened, remorseless killer.
Review originally published in March 2013; the film was the opening night presentation of New Directors/New Films 2013. Blue Caprice opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, September 20. It is also available to watch via various VOD platforms. Visit the official site for more information.