The opening credits of Blue Caprice unspool over news footage and audio recordings, and though we’re now a decade removed from the film’s true-story source material, certain details from this introductory sequence—distressed 911 calls, people bemoaning the death of “random victims,” the chilling image of a person pumping gas—immediately conjure memories of the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Claiming a total of ten innocent lives (and injuring a few more), the Washington, D.C.-area killings were perhaps most frightening due to the everyday behavior it interrupted: these people were murdered while shopping or refilling their automobile tanks, tragedies that rendered the most mundane activity profoundly scary.
While such an opening sequence is hardly novel in a based-on-fact endeavor, screenwriter R.F.I. Porto and French director Alexandre Moors (making his feature debut) are justified in their decision because of the ensuing intimacy that comes to define the film; even the most knowledgeable, well-read viewers who walk in five or ten minutes late might not realize what they’re watching until the eponymous 1990 Chevy Caprice appears in the final act.
Blue Caprice’s narrative proper begins in Antigua, where Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond), a quiet, fatherless 17-year-old kid, has just learned that his mother is skipping town. (We gather that this is a regular occurrence.) Moors and cinematographer Brian O’Carroll, as they do throughout the film, depict Lee’s solitary angst with a delicate, handheld camera and soft-focus frames. After his mother leaves, an almost Hitchcockian mini-sequence develops in which Lee, left to his own devices, follows a man and his three children through the seaside town, eventually tracking them to the beach. A quick cut leads to a shot in which Lee is drowning in the water, and we see the man, an American named John (Isaiah Washington), come to the boy’s rescue. Wisely, it’s left unexplained whether Lee was legitimately on the verge of drowning, or if his flailing body was simply an extreme plea for attention from the older man he’d been shadowing all afternoon. This adolescent desperation—explained by the absent parents, but more importantly expressed through Richmond’s shell-like silence—informs the two characters’ formative conversations.
John soon whisks Lee away to the Tacoma, Wash.,, home of John’s girlfriend (Cassandra Freeman), hoping that Lee will be able to stay with them for a while. That Freeman’s character isn’t particularly receptive to Lee’s sudden arrival is perhaps the least distressful warning sign we discover about John’s character; more telling is the revelation that a restraining order, requested by his ex-wife, is intended to keep him from seeing his children—the same young ones we saw him with earlier in Jamaica. Even creepier, John takes to indulging in bitter monologues while in the company of Lee; one speech he gives in a peaceful neighborhood teems with resentful terms like “evil people,” “ghosts,” and “vampires.” Porto’s writing here isn’t technically effective—it forces a philosophy onto John’s character that isn’t needed and often doesn’t even make sense—but Washington’s delivery is haunting, as is Richmond’s stillness, which implies that Lee is absorbing John’s declarations like a sponge.
In its alarming depiction of a father-son bond that breeds violent results, Blue Caprice is more than a little reminiscent of Justin Kurzel’s recent The Snowtown Murders, which chronicled the corrosive relationship between a vulnerable teenager and the infamous Australian serial killer John Bunting. While Blue Caprice never attempts to achieve the levels of grisliness present in Kurzel’s film, the directness with which it speaks to current gun-violence issues is sometimes queasy nevertheless. Tim Blake Nelson, for instance, plays John’s truck-driving, gun-wielding friend, and the casual nature of the way he encourages Lee to participate in their wilderness-set target-practice sessions is disturbing. Much of Nelson’s dialogue is too pointed—calling Lee a “natural” after the kid fires his first bullet is especially stock—but the point is clear: it probably shouldn’t be this easy, on a practical level, for an impressionable 17-year-old to have this kind of access to firearms.
Joey Lauren Adams—who, along with Nelson, lends some recognizable veteran support to the lesser-known co-leads—shows up here as Nelson’s wife, and she has a strikingly uncomfortable encounter with John during which she subtly propositions him for sex in front of Lee. Moments like this, which compromise John’s rigid, man-with-a-plan demeanor and reveal him as somewhat frail and not above common temptation, complicate the film’s central relationship. A recurring image in the film has Lee pacing across the front porch of a house, killing time, while John is off indulging in another activity—a simple visual expression of the fact that Lee is perhaps not as close to John as he’d like to be. Another frightening moment has John tying Lee up to a tree in the middle of the forest and stranding him there—a brutal, twisted endurance test.
It’s in these physical gestures—the two men jogging together in the forest, John teaching Lee how to drive, Lee holding on to John’s back while riding on a motorbike—that the film’s father-son dynamic is most believable, as the scenes all nicely express how basic physical activity can contribute to the formation of a deep, personal bond between two people. However, the focus Moors brings to these sequences is diminished by the over-explanation shown elsewhere: the sight of Lee reading (and communicating in voice-over) a textbook on the persona of the sniper feels awfully explicit, while John’s bouts of abstract cynicism never cohere into a legible psychology.
Some of these issues are perhaps inevitable as a result of the inexplicability of the true story: why were these murders committed? What was John’s guiding motivation, and how did young Lee get roped into the scheme? Whenever the movie’s attempts to answer these questions don’t convince, it’s hard to say if it’s the fault of the filmmakers, or if they just simply didn’t have enough to draw on in the first place. Furthermore, that Blue Caprice is such a thorough two-hander sometimes works against it; the movie is never quite emotionally engaging on a character level, which is a hard fact to digest given the amount of time spent with Lee and John. Whereas the ensemble nature of something like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant provided a reasonable platform for an objective look at real-life violence, the more investigative side of Blue Caprice isn’t the ideal vehicle for a psychological study. Yet, even if the film never reconciles this dissonance, it’s still, for the most part, a good example of responsible, well-intentioned true-crime filmmaking.
Director: Alexandre Moors
Writer: R.F.I. Porto
Starring: Joey Lauren Adams, Tim Blake Nelson, Tequan Richmond, Isaiah Washington
Release Date: Sept. 13, 2013