Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams, Leo Fitzpatrick, Cassandra Freeman, Linda Powell, April Yvette Thompson, Ron Simons, Al Sapienza
(Sundance Selects; Limited release and VOD: 13 Sep 2013; 2013)
It all started simply enough. The older man wanted justice, vengeance for accusations he found baseless, unfair, and destructive of everything he held dear. The young boy just wanted a family, any family, having been abandoned by his mother to fend for himself. Together, they took refuge in each other, completing the bond that neither was able to have in the real world. Together, they decided that humanity must pay. Together, they took an old beat up car, created a concealed sniper’s nest in the trunk and drove around Washington DC and the Maryland area, creating chaos and death wherever they went. In the end, John Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Lee Malvo (Tequann Richmond) murdered ten people and critically injured three more, all for a plan without any real purpose except to instill fear in the hearts of those who ventured out into what had become their vast killing zone.
Blue Caprice tells their story from the ending forward, meaning we get news highlights and talking head exposition of the facts before we meet young Malvo as his mom walks out on him…again. Apparently off to America with a promise of paying his way there, the Caribbean boy is instead forced to wander the streets and search for food. He comes into contact with Muhammad as the man is caring for his three “kids.” There is talk of a custody hearing in the US and false accusations, but for the most part, he seems to be enjoying his time abroad. Eventually, Muhammad ‘adopts’ Lee and brings the boy to the States. There, he hooks up with an old army friend (Tim Blake Nelson) and his drunken wife (Joey Lauren Adams). Over time, Malvo proves an ace with a pistol, and then a high powered rifle and Muhammad becomes more and more convinced that the world needs to be taught a lesson.
This is the explanation we are given for the otherwise random and senseless crimes, a desire on the part of one spurned man to make everyone else pay for his presumed transgressions. Working from a screenplay from R.F.I. Porto (he also collaborated on the story), director Alexandre Moors makes a very compelling case for his slow, meticulous approach. He builds layers, using an increasing sense of malevolence and foreboding to signal the start of Muhammad and Malvo’s spree. The score, by Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson provides a brilliant counterpoint, its sad melancholia and underling terror telling us to ignore the outward signs of normalcy present. Sure, Muhammad and Malvo may seem like nothing more than father and surrogate son, but as we watch them interact, as we see the sparks shoot off in the mentor’s eyes after witnessing his student’s precision with a weapon, we can tell things won’t be ending well.
What we have here then is another example of a ‘why-dunit.” The who is already known and the how remains an almost genius way of blending in while simultaneously plotting for blood. But motive is the main reason to even consider exploring a subject like this, and while it may be mostly fiction, Porto and Moors make significant strides into parsing through Muhammad’s intent. The viewer has to put a few of the puzzle pieces together - there’s the kids at the beginning, the constant phone calls to locate his other “children,” and perhaps, most compelling, a conversation in front of a house in his old neighborhood where the future mass murderer argues that the people who destroyed his life are still “allowed to live, as if nothing happened” - but we enjoy the challenge. Later, Muhammad calls such people vampires. Malvo argues that you can’t kill vampires since they’re already dead. The response suggests that death is not the catalyst for clearing the decks and rewriting wrongs.
As for Malvo, the purpose is a little more perplexing. He seems like a good kid, even when he his lifting veggie burgers from a local grocery store. He is a whiz with a gun, but he also seems to abhor violence. When he finally does take up the cause and kill, it’s as if some switch has gone off in his head, realizing that if he doesn’t do what his “dad” wants, he may face the same fate as with his mom. After the shoplifting incident, Muhammad takes Malvo out to the woods for a little country punishment. This seems to change the boy as well, turning him from carefree and considered to a bomb ready to explode.
The rest of the cast also helps highlight the horrors to come. Nelson, wearing the kind of beard that only a filthy hobo could truly appreciate, acts as the instigator, the man who saves Muhammad and Malvo from homelessness and teaches them about the value in being properly armed. Ms. Adams also manages to do something similar with even less dialogue and weaponry, using her age and her haggard facade to fuel a kind of dead end feeling, as if no one will be getting out of this thing alive. As the main duo define their purpose and then head out, modified car in tow, the journey to DC is filled with dread. By the time they get there and start killing, the moments of random violence are harrowing. They strike us as pointed and yet pointless, similar to Charles Manson’s plan to invoke a race war via murdering rich people in the California hills.
Thanks to his tone poem approach and desire to evoke instead of explain, Moors makes Blue Caprice a sensational study in subtle psychopathology. We watch as two men go from angry to aggressive to angels of death, each allowing the other to feed off their disappointment and disgust. Toward the end, when it looks like the duo will finally get caught, we’re privy to the proposed endgame. Muhammad had hoped to recruit more Malvos and bring his kind of inexplicable terror to every part of the country. That would teach everyone. In the end, they were caught and convicted, and the region returned to a kind of calm. But the truth remains is that anyone could be another Muhammad or Malvo, resentful and ready to take it out on anyone within striking distance. By showing us how easy it is to go from mad to murderer, Blue Caprice makes what happened even more frightening.