BLUE CAPRICE Review

There is a haunting tone, an eerie atmosphere that surrounds every action that takes place in director Alexandre Moors debut feature, Blue Caprice. Walking into this film I was unsure of what exactly I was getting myself into, only that I'd heard good word of mouth surrounding it and that the poster offered an intriguing yet mysterious look into the story behind the Washington DC sniper tragedy that occurred over a decade ago now in which ten people senselessly lost their lives. Naturally, I remember these events and was a little hesitant when approaching a film that told the killers side of the story when it only seemed to be bringing more attention to individuals who don't deserve that type of recognition, but where I would have rather seen a movie telling the story about the life or lives of those who had theirs stolen a la another Sundance hit, Fruitvale Station, which caused waves earlier this year. While I still went into the film with little to no knowledge of what it was going to actually depict or what the backstory behind the two men who were found guilty of these crimes were, I wasn't ready to appreciate the film because I didn't think it was necessary that it be made. I held prejudice against it simply on the basis that it seemed to exist because the events it would be presenting were well-known and the people behind the cameras and script knew they would likely be able to garner a good amount of attention with this kind of material. While there are surely plenty of other routes Moors and his team could have taken to achieve the level of recognition they are now getting for this film, the film itself and not the motives behind it or the politics of its existence are what's under examination here and in that regard Moors has crafted an extremely intimate character study that gives voice to a young man who never felt he had much of a choice in the world. This isn't an exploitative venture, but a film looking to bring some sense of reason, of justification to actions where no apology or logic can ever make up for the pain they caused. This is understood and not excused, but at least attempts to bring some kind of understanding, if not answers, to the all-encompassing question of "why" that no doubt still plagues relatives of the victims to this day.

Isaiah Washington as John Allen Muhammad in Blue Caprice.
Though it is never clearly stated in the film what we are watching is the beginnings and evolution of the relationship between seventeen year-old Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond) and forty-one year-old John Allen Muhammad (Grey's Anatomy's Isaiah Washington). When Lee's mother essentially abandons him and their house in the Caribbean the teenager is left with nothing but a deep hatred for her. He sees John, their neighbor, taking his kids out to play and how they look up to him and the affection he shows each of them. There is something off about his interactions with them though and even moreso with the stories he tells them about their mother and why they can't be with both of them at the same time. Lee doesn't so much care about the details of what is going on with John's personal life, but he only sees him as a father figure and someone he can depend on. When this person, the first person that has shown him they care about his life, offers the opportunity to return to the United States with him Lee is willing to do whatever it takes, whatever John wants him to do, for that option to become a reality. After five months of working for him John follows through on his promise and brings Lee to his home of Tacoma, Washington where the frustrations of John not being able to track down his estranged wife and children begin to override his sense of what is considered normal behavior. John Allen Muhammad was enlisted in the U.S. Army and no matter what happened during his years of service, what he might have underwent that changed how his mind worked it becomes clear that his combat training gave him an unintentional entitlement to how he might resolve such issues. He takes on Lee not really as a son in his eyes, though he repeats several times that he is a father to the boy, but more he continues to mold young Malvo as if he were leading a cult and was intent on extending his issues with the world onto this younger, more able-bodied shooter and knowing he has the power of love and affection over this young man puts conditions on these feelings and requires Lee do horrible things to stay on the receiving end of that care. It is a compelling psychological study to see how such unnerving acts became acceptable to a seemingly average young man on the outside, but what the movie captures that is even more chilling than the shootings themselves is the lack of remorse John shows for turning this desperate young man into a monster.

While the story is inherently horrifying the film is also relentlessly bleak and in true independent fashion feels the need to slow things down and document the evolving relationship of these two in such a way that things move slowly and often methodically. The film begins with a briskly paced introduction to each character that doesn't dwell on their current situations, but gets the necessary expository information across in a manner that catches the audience up to speed on how and why each of them ended up in Washington DC and even so much as to why the chosen route of terrorism was with a rifle. Once John and Lee are in the states they come across an old friend of John's, Ray (the always welcome Tim Blake Nelson), who invites them to "blow off some steam" by joining him in the middle of the woods and firing off a few rounds. Lee is of course a natural shot and we see the cogs begin to turn in John's head as he discusses the frustrations of the judicial system and the custody of his children with Ray and the combination of the two and how he might come to feel peaceful with his situation. It is disturbing in that this was all a conscience decision, but Washington's performance is what pushes it over the edge. Moors camera stays steady on his John as he watches Lee fire Ray's pride and joy with precision. Only to switch from the calm, almost soothing persona he embodies in the background of gunshots to the rage-filled, intimidating man that threatens officials essentially informing him of his incompetence when it comes to getting near his children again in the next scene. Washington is an actor I haven't seen much from, though I hear he was the best thing about the aforementioned ABC drama before he was kicked off regarding an offensive remark he made. Though that matters little in this context, what he brings here is an intensity that ups the stringent tone the film consistently keeps. He is an intense presence, someone you know you don't want to say the wrong thing in front of. He plays the intimidation game to the hilt and when you are bumming from house to house, looking for charity without being questioned, this tactic pays off. As much as this is a story about how the young Lee was brainwashed into picking off innocent victims it is also a truly scary look into the idea that there really is no specific reason why this happened and Washington's performance conveys that fog of curiosity without ever pinpointing any reason as to why he wouldn't go through with it.

Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) gives Lee (Tequan Richmond) a few tips on how to shoot.
It is after these wheels begin to turn in John's head that the film almost reverts to something of a muddled narrative. We see the beginnings of the killings that Lee goes through with, but the film isn't precise on how these events link from one to the next. We are simply taken form one scenario where Lee shoots a young girl point blank because John said so to the next scene where John sits in Ray's kitchen with his wife (Joey Lauren Adams) nervously working around him in the background. It could be argued of course that these individual vignettes give us glimpses into the personalities or the real feelings of the characters involved, but they don't build to much of a payoff. The more effective scenes come from the interaction between the two which only occur periodically in between scenes that are meant to re-iterate the somewhat normalcy with which these guys exist while hiding their true nature. As interesting and subdued a performance as Tequan Richmond gives as the quiet Lee, his honest personality never comes through as well as we'd expect and the highlight is the relationship he begins to form with Ray. Even this isn't enough to earn the film the impression of truly fleshing out who this young man was and why he was so easily convinced to kill people other than for the love and trust of a man who gave him things he wouldn't have been able to gain otherwise. Naturally, Lee begins to wonder if the rewards were worth the price he is now paying as he has a conscience, but the ever towering presence of John forces him to never reconsider the situation he's found himself in and goes along with all that he knows so that he may continue to earn the respect of the only adult who's ever given him any. As we know what the end of the movie holds, it is the films responsibility to give us reason to become invested in it and though the character study approach is engaging in spots it is not strong enough to support a feature and thus gives way to the lumbering pace the film creeps by at. It is good for tone and in some cases, tension, but overall it gives a less than satisfying impression especially when the odds were stacked against it in the first place.