You Know What You Did Wrong
“We’re the people that are causing the killings in your area. We’ve called you three times before to try to set up negotiations. We’ve had no response. People have died.”
—Lee Malvo’s call to police dispatcher, 15 October 2002
“A sniper must be able to calmly and deliberately kill targets that may not pose an immediate threat to him,” reads the teenager Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond). He holds his book before him as he paces the wooden boards of a house porch, back and forth, back and forth. “It is much easier to kill in self-defense or in the defense of others,” he goes on, “than to kill without an apparent reason.”
It’s a chilling moment in Blue Caprice, because you know exactly where young Malvo’s peaceful discipline here will lead. In this moment, you know that Lee means to learn his lesson in order to please the man he calls his father, John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington). And you know that his education will make him a sniper, calm and deliberate as he takes out targets in and around Washington DC in October 2002.
That you know this shapes all of Alexandre Moors’ film, even though it spends a scant few minutes on the shootings and even less time on the terror they brought to the region, events and terror conveyed here primarily in archival TV footage, hectic handheld-camera on-site reports and gloomy police briefings. The contrast between these scenes of general chaos and Blue Caprice‘s otherwise insistent focus on Lee and John’s evolving intimacy makes the footage that much more jarring, as it marks the emotional and psychic gulf between the two killers and their targets.
This gulf is the film’s premise and point of entry, as well as the focus of its investigation. From the start, when Lee first espies John in Antigua, where the boy lives and the man is vacationing. Watching John from afar, walking the beach with his own small children, Lee not only sees a contrast with his own fatherless life, but also feels a more desperate longing when his mother (April Yvette Thompson) abandons him: the scene is harrowing, shot from close range and canted angles, Lee’s panic rising and her figure receding.
This visual disorder contrasts vividly with the seeming peace offered by John; when he takes Lee in, offers him food and a bed, the camera is close, steady. “Has your mother done this before?” John asks. “She always leave,” Lee answers, his head low. When he writes a note to leave for his mother—as he has no address to which he might send it—Lee describes his savior: “He is American he teaches me to talk like an American. He says I can be an American too. Him named john.” Just so, the film reveals that Lee’s faith in John is also a faith in America, and as such, John’s pathology is also deeply, disturbingly American.
That pathology has to do with a sense of frustration and resentment, a dreadful self-definition and lack of empathy. The American John is chaotic, determined to take vengeance on his ex-wife back in Maryland, from who m he took his children illegally. Her off-screen story includes domestic abuse and restraining orders, while his offers up an unsettling stop outside an ex-neighbor’s home, during which he instructs Lee. “The lady who lives here is a real piece of shit,” he states flatly, “She testified against me in court.” For that, he continues, she’s a “fucking vampire, I hope she dies.” Lee observes the illogic, briefly, “Vampires can’t die, they’re already dead.” No matter, John insists. “You got to fight it, hit back.”
As American as John’s inclination to fight back may be, when he devises a plan to kill random people in order to target his ex-wife and regain custody of his children, it’s clear enough that his calculation has turned monstrous. But rather than following John’s descent into a sensational madness, the film tilts toward Lee’s view, his inability to see outside. John insists that Lee owes him, because, he says, his arms stretched wide against as desolate a background as you might imagine, declares that Lee owes him, “I gave you all this.”
This bleak site has a name, Bellingham, Washington. It’s where John brings Lee to live with an Army buddy, Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), and where they develop something of a routine, shooting and drinking and playing video games. While Lee looks flummoxed during a scene or two at the high school where he’s briefly enrolled, John makes Ray and his baby’s mother Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams) increasingly uneasy. For a precious few moments, Jamie offers a different view of the men’s activities, her uneasiness yours, as she appears restless in her dingy kitchen, crowded with counters and cupboards.
And Jamie doesn’t even see what you do, that John, progressively desperate to control Lee, beats him and ties him to a tree, asserting he needs to learn a lesson. Here the camera careens as if unable to keep up with John’s rage, then lingers with Lee as he wails for “dad” and “John,” now another receding figure from Lee’s perspective.
You know what comes next. Lee does as he’s told. He learns to shoot, to lie, to drive the blue Caprice. “You know what you did wrong,” observes an alarmingly paternal John following a mistake. “Yes sir,” Lee answers. This even as you know that he’s just shot a girl at John’s directive, a target chosen “for no apparent reason.” In showing that Lee has a reason, a whole set of reasons, Blue Caprice doesn’t excuse or even explain how he came to this place. It asks how John might see his impulse to violence as righteous, how Lee is so susceptible, how no one else intervenes at any moment. And it asks how America, as an idea and a place, might be one reason for any of it.