In telling the story of the 2002 D.C. snipers, writer/director Alexandre Moors makes several surprising turns, the foremost amongst them his decision to skip most of the shootings and the manhunt that followed them. This is a risk, and it works. With a montage of 911 calls during the opening credits, Moors reminds us of our nation’s fear, reminds us how badly these killers terrorized the United States, and then, for the rest of the film, Moors trusts the power of his opening montage. He’s not looking to recreate our fear; he’s not looking to show us the sniper shootings. He’s looking to show how Lee Boyd Malvo and his father figure John Allen Muhammed came to be snipers in the first place. Perhaps more importantly, Moors is looking to examine evil, to show us how it can consume a man and then spread to a child.
For the most part, it works. Despite taking a detached approach similar to that used by Sofia Coppola in The Bling Ring and Ariel Vroman in The Iceman, Moors, along with talented actor Tequan Richmond, makes us feel for Lee Boyd Malvo, makes us empathize with the child even as we watch him transform from lonely and abandoned, to the victim of a monster, to a monster himself. Malvo, who is currently living in solitary confinement and has no human contact twenty-three hours per day, will spend the rest of his life paying for his crimes – as well he should – and there is nothing in this picture that asks us to regret his punishment. But Blue Caprice does make us care about a teenager who terrorized us. That is the true power of Moors’ movie.
Tequan Richmond as Malvo is haunting, especially in the final moments when Lee refuses to cooperate with an interviewer. The refusal itself isn’t haunting, all the more so because the real life Malvo eventually testified against Muhammad, but the look on Richmond’s face, the scorn, the scowl, is. We cannot forgive this kid for what he did, but we can nonetheless regret what Muhammad did to him. Assuming this picture was an accurate retelling of Malvo’s relationship with Muhammad (and a brief Google search suggests it was pretty close), Malvo was another victim.
As good as Richmond is as Malvo, Isaiah Washington is better as John Allen Muhammad. Washington almost makes his psychopath likeable and certainly makes him charismatic.
The real life Muhammad is an enigma, his motivations for the shooting spree remain at least somewhat unclear (a fact the film captures), but Washington manages to give Muhammad some definition. Manages to give us some basic, broad-stroke understanding. Washington manages to convince us that Malvo had reason to love (and fear) this man, manages to avoid turning an abusive and sadistic jerk into a caricature, manages, even, to make Muhammad almost sympathetic. That is acting at its finest (though perhaps not quite as impacting as Matthew McConaughy in Mud).
In other words, Blue Caprice accomplishes what The Iceman, a film with similar themes and objectives, does not. Blue Caprice manages to make us care, at least to some extent, about these characters.
The problem is that it fails to deliver many important plot points. Why did John and Lee leave Antigua? How did their relationship develop to the point where Lee left home to come to the United States with John? How did John react in the moment the authorities took away his kids? From whence did these men get their weapons? Did they steal them from Ray (Tim Blake Nelson in a marginally creepy turn that struck the perfect balance for this film)? What happened on the men’s journey from Washington state to the Washington D.C. beltway?
Most importantly, how did the men react when they were finally caught, sleeping in the car that had been so instrumental in their killing spree? I’m glad Moors mostly skipped the shootings themselves, but I wish he had shown us the arrest and given the actors a chance to emote as their characters’ run finally ended.
Every performance in Blue Caprice is fantastic. This picture is at least as well acted as Blue Jasmine. Maybe better, which is why it still haunts me the morning after I watched it. But I wish Moors had been as willing to show us some of the film’s key events as he was to show us its characters.