You'll find no "Based on a True Story" claims at the beginning of Alexandre Moors' riveting, terrifying Blue Caprice, a film which dares to dig into the psyche of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, known for a time as the Beltway Snipers. There have been other movies that have recreated the events of those weeks, most focusing on the carnage and the police's often-bungled attempts to locate them. But Moors, making an impressive directorial debut, dredges up with horrible impact the fear of being a DC resident during that time, while also looking for a measure of understanding.
The film begins with a flurry of images that any Beltway native will find familiar. Footage of news coverage reporting on the killing spree, random shots of people cowering in fear, interspersed with the cops, led by the infamous Charles Moose(where's he now??) reporting on any leads. Remember the "white van" they had us all on the lookout for? But after that, Moors, who also wrote the script, takes us to Antigua where Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) turns out to be a sort of father figure to abandoned Malvo (Tequan Richmond). At the onset, Muhammad is in the company of his three kids, but soon Malvo learns that they've actually been abducted from their mother, who has full custody. It's this unfairness that sparks Muhammad's rage towards the system and the world, with Moors depicting it with subtle touches, aided by Washington's nuanced and powerful performance.
Malvo, especially open to suggestion and in need of a stable presence, immediately begins to relate to Muhammad's worldview. Moving on to Washington state, they stay at a girlfriend's home while Muhammad plots a means of discovering his ex-wife's whereabouts, and expressing a murderous disdain for those he perceives have screwed up his life. Slowly, but surely, that darkness begins to creep into Malvo, who up until that point was a quiet, reserved blank slate. Once in Washington, DC, Malvo is taught the lethal power of guns as Muhammad and an old Army buddy (Tim Blake Nelson) revel in blasting off a few rounds. Muhammad immediately senses that Malvo may be the perfect partner for his sinister plans, and puts the boy through a baptism by fire, up to and including tying him to a tree and abandoning him overnight. Malvo, who doesn't know any better, cries but ultimately doesn't fight back. It's all a test, a dark initiation into Muhammad's twisted reality. Buying an old, used Blue Caprice, they use it as their mobile headquarters of sorts, cutting a sniper hole from which they can target from afar. The ensuing murders are cold, efficient, and send the residents into a rightful panic.
While Blue Caprice is basically a character study, the fury of the killing spree is captured in quick and vivid brutality. Stepping into Muhammad's headspace only makes the attacks more vicious and him more evil. The Beltway sniper attacks remain a sensitive subject in the area, and speaking as someone who was there when it happened, the concern was that perhaps Moors was attempting to sympathize with the killers. I'm not even sure you can call what he's done "humanizing", as Muhammad is as much an inhuman monster at the end as he was at the beginning. It's mostly about providing texture, context, and some measure of truth in the tragedy. Shot in an eerily minimalist fashion, Moors draws echoes of Gus van Sant and Jim Jarmusch, especially in frequent scenes of the Blue Caprice's silent night time journey. If there's a complaint, it's that the energy does take a dip at times, and some of the subplots disrupt the film's focus. A subplot involving the promiscuous and curious wife (Joey Lauren Adams) of Muhammad's Army buddy doesn't add much to the story.
Malvo remains a fascinating subject to explore, and Moors leaves much to interpretation as to his own part in the killings. Yes, he certainly takes part in the actual shootings, but his motivations are never totally clear. One minute he's a scary hurricane of emotions, while one moment he looks like an unwilling and solemn victim to Muhammad's urges. Richmond, in his first serious film role, brilliantly captures Malvo's fractious personality. He stands toe-to-toe nicely opposite Washington, who in the finest work of his career depicts the many conflicting sides to Muhammad that make him so scary.
Blue Caprice doesn't seek to be the definitive story of the Beltway Sniper attacks, but it does a good job at trying to ascertain what drove Muhammad and Malvo to be the men they turned out to be. The answer? They're crazy, and we may never truly understand what makes them tick.
NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.