You'd like to think that any action, no matter how deplorable, can be understood if you just could get a chance to see the perpetrator's circumstances. Blue Caprice, a troubling and difficult film that debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival, negates this premise. The man and boy behind the 2002 “Beltway sniper attacks” remain unknowable, even after close scrutiny. They aren't crazy, they don't seem evil; they are merely vessels, ready for whichever social theory we think best fits.
Blue Caprice opens with some news footage, and for this audience member it was a shocking reminder of our culture of rampant gun violence. Despite living through it (and taking a trip to Fairfax, Virginia during the height of the panic) I must admit that I kinda forgot all about this tragedy.
The action then moves to Antigua, where an unnamed man (John Allen Muhammad) played by Isaiah Washington is taking care of his three children. You can tell there's a distance there; the kids are happy, but uneasy. We'll later (and obliquely) learn that he kidnapped them before bringing them there, the consequences of which lead to the explosive finale.
While in Antigua he meets an abandoned adolescent, played by Tequan Richmond, who basically moves in with Washington. (Unless I missed it, we never hear his name either, but this is, indeed, Lee Boyd Malvo.) Soon the two move to Washington State, where the fragments of Muhammad's life remains. They move in with a woman implied to be an ex-girlfriend, hang out with a gun nut played by a hairy Tim Blake Nelson and haunt the block where Muhammad's ex-wife and kids are thought to live.
There's a restraining order on Muhammad, and the quiet Malvo is soon subjected to a series of harangues about women as vampires and the impropriety of the State. With the help of Tim Blake Nelson's character, Malvo begins playing around with firearms, including a massive weapon nicknamed the Widowmaker, as well as reading army-issued texts about the psychology of snipers.
Blue Caprice is a quintessential slow-burn story, stitched together with pulse-like ambient music and repetitive dialogue. Muhammad is clearly training Malvo in strange ways (such as tying him to a tree for lengths of time) until the third act breaks out in shocking, upsetting violence.
The eventual killing spree is shot in a gorgeous, dare-I-say Kubrickian manner, one that is disarming and upsetting. The bulk of the film rolls over you in a dreamlike haze and the ending is, for a lack of a better term, lively. Whether or not this is a good thing for the Firearms-Pornography Complex is something worth discussing.
Blue Caprice is, as the lingo goes these days, a tough sit. Frankly, when I stepped out of its Sundance screening I purposely wiggled my way through the crowd to avoid the publicist. If asked how I felt I would have been honest and said “not for me.” And yet, the movie has lingered. This is no easy feat, considering that I pounded in another ten movies between then and now. It is arty and elliptical (indeed, not a word about Muhammad's conversion to the Nation of Islam), and it is nothing resembling a typical expose on a mad killer. Nevertheless it is an intriguing look at burgeoning evil and personality manipulation.