Written by R.F.I. Porto
Directed by Alexandre Moors
When making a fictional film about a horrific real-life event, the trap is in explanations. Everyone from politicians to part-time Wikipedia editors has already had their chance to weigh in on the cause of the event, and everyone who cares to have an opinion will likely have formed theirs well before the movie opens. Explaining the tragedy for them will not do; they key instead is to turn the participants, who have not been much more than booking photos in a news report for most of the audience, into fully realized human beings.
Accordingly, Alexandre Moors’ debut feature Blue Caprice is at its weakest when it applies any explanation to the story of John Allen Muhammed (Isaiah Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond), the two men who murdered ten people in a series of sniper-style attacks in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002. Fortunately, this lyrical, moody film tries to explain itself only on occasion, leaving the rest of its running time for the two characters at its core and an exploration of the strange bond that they shared.
Washington’s work as John (the characters are only ever referred to by first names) is quite strong. He could easily get away with overplaying the character as a megalomaniac — and he’s good at that sort of character, too, as his crazy-eyed villain was the best thing about the lame Jet Li vehicle Romeo Must Die. In fact, many film and TV fans might be expecting Washington as the crazed antagonist in real life, as he hasn’t been heard from much since his run on the hit show Grey’s Anatomy disintegrated in a flurry of accusations of bigotry and off-screen clashes with his co-stars.
Instead, his performance in Blue Caprice has a subtle understanding of a man who is apart from the rest of the world, often by his own choice, but who still wants a child’s love. At times, John simply wants to destroy American society and would use any tool to do so, even manipulating his own child; in other scenes, he displays a legitimate fatherly pride in seeing Lee become skilled at something. This is the sort of character who would risk multiple felony convictions to get his adopted son into the country, but then use his trial to put all responsibility for the murders on the boy (both of which happened to the real men, but isn’t shown in the film).
Moors has a terrific eye that belies his history as a director of commercials and music videos (he’s perhaps best known for this video that accompanied Kanye West’s song “Runaway”). His gorgeous compositions highlight the ways that John and Lee isolate themselves from the rest of society when they are alone, and also the way that Lee falls into lockstep behind his makeshift father when they are together. Moors handles the actual murders as delicately as possible for a film shot from the killers’ point of view; he emphasizes the horror and heartlessness of sniper-style tactics and does not dwell on the slaughter itself.
The only moments in which Moors loses his way are the ones where he attempts to expand John and Lee’s story to American gun culture at large. Consider Lee’s first time firing a rifle: the scene smash-cuts to a news report of the bombing of Afghanistan, with the sound of the gunshot meant to double as the explosion of a bomb. It’s artfully done, but thematically, comparing the weapons that America deploys abroad with the ones deployed at home is as subtle as a sledgehammer. Worse still is a later scene where one character plays a first-person-shooter video game while another one smokes marijuana and discusses the then-recent movie The Matrix; there ought to be a nickname for a scene that deploys so many culture-war issues that are irrelevant to the actual movie. Call it the Fox News Trifecta.
Still, Moors’ heart is in the right place even in those faulty moments. He wants to maneuver in the tight space between demonizing these characters as murderers and sympathizing with them as outsiders, and for the majority of Blue Caprice, he succeeds beautifully. The film does not make excuses for these killers, but at the same time it acknowledges that every mass murderer was just a normal person once, a loner searching for a bond with other people. The depth of Lee’s bond with John is not clear until the final scene, which turns the preceding 90 minutes into a forceful cinematic gut punch.