2013 - 93 minutes
Directed by: Alexandre Moors
Written by: Ronnie Porto
Starring: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson,
Joey Lauren Adams
Rather than creating a historical drama that takes us step-by-step through the Beltway Sniper chaos of 2002, “Blue Caprice” delves deep into the threat that lurked in the shadows. Before madness exploded in and around Washington D.C. leaving 10 people dead and 3 more critically injured, it was seeded in the union of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
In the film, they are simply John and Lee. The facts aren’t forced upon us; what matters is how this dubious alliance led to tragedy. It is quite remarkable that “Blue Caprice” unites a pair of first-timers – writer Ronnie Porto and director Alexandre Moors. Both resist any urge to sensationalize known events or emotionally pander, opting for a slow burn that casts a somber pall rather than bursts of spectacle that calls attention to itself.
Porto’s script uses the elements of the case to color the narrative, not as an outline to fill-in with expository dialogue or deeds. Some facts are altered or dropped, but not in a manipulative way; the somber song remains the same even if not all the notes are exact. Moors’ assured direction hits the tone perfectly.
The film opens with archival news footage of the killings that builds to a crescendo of reporter voices and frantic, confused 911 calls. The mania cuts to the island of Antigua where Lee (Tequan Richmond) has just been abandoned by his mother (again) and he wanders the landscape of slums and pristine beaches. Hungry, lonely and bored, he meets John (Isaiah Washington), who provides him with food, a place to stay and a warm body to be around. It seems Lee provides John a pupil he’s been looking for when he stares and asks dryly, “what are we gonna do with you, huh?” In John’s mind, that question appears to be answered immediately.
They head back to John’s home of Tacoma, Washington – his home in city only, where they first stay with John’s girlfriend. When kicked out, they move in with John’s longtime friend, army buddy and gun enthusiast Ray (Tim Blake Nelson). The shabby house is filled with 1970s furniture in various stages of decay, with Ray’s wife (Joey Lauren Adams) stalking around, interested in only her immediate needs rather than those of the baby sometimes cradled in her arms.
The highlight of the home is the gun cabinet fashioned from chicken wire in the shed. John and Lee begin to practice their marksmanship, with Ray noting Lee‘s a natural with the assault rifle he’s dubbed ‘The Widowmaker.’ Mental manipulation also begins in earnest, with John slowly espousing his skewed views onto the eager-to-please Lee. They walk through a neighborhood with John sharing his outrage with neighbors who he thought had wronged him. His anger evolves to target a mythical “them” that needs to be destroyed.
Washington’s performance is brutal in its casualness, rarely slipping into fits of rage. Watching a slow, steady indoctrination and corruption of a pliable pawn is far more wrenching than witnessing a fire and brimstone speech given from a bully pulpit. In one of the film’s most frightening scenes, John is strolling through a grocery store, eating an apple and laying out a multi-staged plan where he and Lee can dismantle society with a few well-placed shots. Scary in its informality, but also terrifying because for a few weeks in October of 2002 it proved to be partially correct.
Speeches aren’t showy, but we’re always aware of Lee’s internalization of John’s words. By the time the titular Chevrolet is having a hole cut in the trunk and Lee is reciting lines from an army sniper’s handbook, it all feels like a scarily logical and steady progression.
While the buildup is incredibly effective, the film does lose a little bit of its mood after the determined men drive into D.C. on a rainy evening. It’s as if “Blue Caprice” almost feels obligated to satisfy expectations and show snippets of the horrific events. They’re shown with thoughtfulness, but things do go on autopilot for a brief stretch, getting through some of the details. A harrowing scene in a parking lot where the rifle sight tracks several individuals before zeroing in on a target appropriately portrays the shocking randomness of the carnage.
“Blue Caprice” is a fitting title for this film in that it’s not concerned with an all-encompassing examination of the Beltway Sniper attacks, only the danger that was hiding in plain sight. Of course, the real menace lies in the birth of the evil – how within that Caprice was a taskmaster and his understudy that went from abandoned child to instrument of wickedness, not much different than the barrel of steel poking from the trunk.
© 2013 by Blake Crane