However unlikely it was to become a target of the snipers who, during three weeks in October 2002, terrorized the suburbs of Washington D.C. and killed 10 people and critically injured three others, the randomness of the attacks and spectral quality of the killers infused daily activities with a particular kind of dread. In an oral history of the events published by the Washingtonian in 2012, one woman recalled: “We’d run through parking lots. I’d try not to get gas when I was with family. Once while I was pumping gas, I said to my boys, ’You have to get down on the floorboards.’” If Blue Caprice captures the reality of that month, it does so in its tense mood more than in its telling of the facts. Alexandre Moors’s debut feature tells the backstory of the two men behind the killing spree, as he and screenwriter R.F.I Porto are more interested in questioning what brings people to commit such senseless and merciless acts than they are preoccupied with the historical record. And with that choice comes a broader vision on mass violence: The John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond) we meet in the film become the Beltway snipers, but it takes little imagination to picture them walking armed into a movie theater or school instead.
After a credit sequence that summarizes the October shootings, Moors takes us back a year to Antigua, where Lee watches as his mother leaves for a trip with half-hearted promises of returning home. Aimless, hungry, and alone, Lee begins to follow John and his three kids, a seemingly perfect family unit, first around town and ultimately to a beach, where John saves Lee from drowning. It turns out, however, that far from being the perfect father, John has taken his children away without permission. Months later, he and Lee are back in the U.S., the children are back permanently with their mother, and John has begun harboring increasingly strong resentments against the world for taking his family from him.
With no “will they or won’t they” element to the plot, Blue Caprice has to work harder to maintain momentum, particularly through its second act. But its focus on Lee’s transformation from shy child to ruthless killer largely pays off because Richmond’s lean performance makes for captivating, if occasionally devastating, watching. Lee hardly speaks in the movie; he mostly follows John, listening to his conspiratorial speeches with an empty, apathetic stare that belies how deeply he absorbs what he hears. When John begins to introduce him as his son, it seems like a deception of mere convenience. But when he leaves Lee stranded in the woods and tied to a tree (as Lee cries to John, “Dad, Dad, what did I do?”), the suddenly clear effects of John’s slightest affection bring back to mind Lee’s look after nearly drowning, one that betrayed a possible hidden purpose behind his walk into the ocean: to die or be saved, but at least to no longer be alone. Once Lee manages to untie himself, he commits his first murder—a revenge killing on behalf of his “father”—and just a few scenes later speaks with such intimidating and protective authority on John’s behalf that John remarks, with no morsel of regret, “I’ve created a monster.”
Washington is equally powerful as John, whose anger at first shows itself only in disorganized rants against those who’ve wronged him, like he’s talking to himself as much as to Lee. Only with time does he display signs of a slowly emerging idea—a spark in his eye while watching Lee shoot his first gun—and then move to precise planning. In real life, John’s lawyers unsuccessfully claimed their client was mentally ill (he ultimately received a death sentence and was executed in 2009). In Blue Caprice, the line between conscious action and delusion remains undefined. John is a man capable of all-too-sane preparation, but appears lost to the world of reason whenever he jumps deep into his fantastical grievances and conspiracies. The question of John’s motives is treated with equal ambiguity. The movie follows that thread knowing full and well that finding its beginning—the desire for revenge after losing his children—won’t resolve the matter, in real life or in fiction.
Part of the film’s slight lag in the middle comes from how thin the reasons for these horrendous acts were. There’s no depth to them, nothing for the film to dig into. But Blue Caprice’s lasting impact, and the unsettling dread that it creates, derives in part from that very same emptiness. The resentments and disappointments that lead Lee and John down their path aren’t rare. A result like the sniper shootings may be unlikely, but those ordinary origins let it linger always in the realm of possibility.