Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and brief drug use.
Running time: 93 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
“Blue Caprice” takes a true story of violence and panic and tells it in the most artful, understated manner imaginable — which makes its events even more powerful.
Director Alexandre Moors, making his astonishingly assured feature debut, portrays the 2002 Beltway sniper killings as a slow and steady buildup — a quiet chill that leads to an explosion of havoc. Moors has structured his film elegantly, yet there’s a tangible sleaze and grit to the characters and their surroundings; it’s a slow burn, but he achieves inescapable tension.
Actually, “Blue Caprice” isn’t even about the shootings themselves, which left 10 people dead and three others critically injured in and around Washington D.C. Rather, Moors and screenwriter R.F.I. Porto (also with his first feature) focus on the twisted, father-son relationship that developed between disturbed mastermind John Allen Muhammad and impressionable teenager Lee Boyd Malvo.
Isaiah Washington is frightening as hell as Muhammad in his first major role since being fired from “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007 for making anti-gay slurs. It’s a hell of a comeback, and a fascinating choice; rather than play someone noble, inspiring or miraculous — the offensive “Magical Negro” stereotype, for example — Washington opted to play a killer who wanted to destroy our sense of safety and tear down the fabric of our nation. It was a bold move that paid off big-time, as Washington reminds us of what a powerful actor he can be.
But Tequan Richmond rises to his formidable challenge, as well, as Malvo. It’s not as showy a role as Washington’s, but Richmond must not only hold his own opposite the acting veteran (which he does) but also reflect a major change in mentality and motivation in subtle ways. He makes you feel sorry for a young man who took many lives.
“Blue Caprice” begins with a stream of 911 calls and quick glimpses of television footage — a trickle that builds to a cacophony — before showing us how Muhammad and Malvo met on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Muhammad initially appears as a benevolent Pied Piper to the poor neighborhood children, a dapper American with a magnetic presence. Malvo’s mother has just abandoned him (again), leaving him alone to wander the streets and beaches. Muhammad recognizes in him a lost soul in need of shepherding — and one of the fascinating elements of “Blue Caprice” is that it never explicitly reveals whether Muhammad truly loves Malvo as a son, or he’s merely exploiting the kid because he’s adrift and malleable.
Muhammad brings Malvo with him back to the United States, first to Tacoma, Wash., before buying the blue Chevy Caprice of the film’s title and driving cross-country to carry out his mission. (The film fudges the details a tad while staying true to the core of the real-life story.) Muhammad, it turns out, is bitter — he feels wronged by his wife, who took the couple’s children and placed a restraining order against him, as well as by the neighbors who testified against him in court. He’s been thinking, planning, seething — and the scene in which he matter-of-factly reveals his scheme to Malvo while grocery shopping is the most unsettling of the entire film.
“Total chaos” is his goal. “The system comes down.” But the collapse will come in small ways, with victims who are chosen seemingly at random to create a maximum feeling of fear. But first, he must train the young man to prepare him for such a massive undertaking. Muhammad functions as Malvo’s caretaker but he’s also a capricious and sadistic mentor, molding his body and warping his mind. He teaches Malvo how to drive, for example, but also ties him to a tree in the middle of the forest and leaves him overnight, ignoring Malvo’s heart-wrenching cries of “Dad!”
That’s a rare, dramatic moment in Moors’ film. Extended sequences in which the two men jog side by side through the woods, accompanied by a stripped-down but urgent string score, are more common in establishing their bond. They also get help in their cause from an unknowing, longtime friend of Muhammad’s played by an earthy, no-nonsense Tim Blake Nelson. (Joey Lauren Adams lends sadness to the film as his trashy, chain-smoking wife, who’s too busy drinking beer in the middle of the day to keep track of where her baby is.)
Nelson’s character is pivotal because he teaches Malvo how to shoot: “Kid’s a fuckin’ natural,” he says in awe while watching him aim at targets for the first time. He also introduces them to his sniper rifle, which he proudly refers to as “The Widowmaker.”
As Muhammad becomes increasingly paranoid and volatile, Malvo remains unfailingly polite, regardless of the situation. Everyone is “sir” and “ma’am.” And his quiet kindness — like the film’s restrained lack of judgment — is far eerier than any tirade would have been.