The 2002 Beltway Sniper killings left a wake of carnage: 10 dead and three wounded, the victims all targeted while waiting at bus stops or walking through shopping mall parking lots. There’s enough blood and horror there for a movie to graphically sensationalize and not feel a trace of guilt. Yet “Blue Caprice,” the striking feature debut of director Alexandre Moors, heads in the other direction — into the angry, enigmatic minds of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the man and the boy who wielded the gun.
The film’s a character piece with a tightening noose of suspense, and while it has its artsy-indie-dawdly moments, it’s disturbing in ways that aren’t easy to shake. Is the movie necessary? Do we need a “John and Lee: Portrait of Two Serial Killers”? Because it shines a light, however hesitant, into the cramped, resentful mind-sets that fester in the corners of America, I’d have to say yes.
“Blue Caprice” is also a return to form for its co-producer-star Isaiah Washington, who had become a cultural footnote in the wake of his ugly 2007 departure from TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Washington plays Muhammad, the twisted father figure of the two killers, without a shred of vanity — or rather, he plays to the bitter, increasingly paranoid vanity of a man convinced that the world’s out to get him and that firing back is the only option.
Moors, a Frenchman who has made his bones in music videos and short films (notably with Kanye West), has a knack for mood and psychological tension, and Sarah Neufeld’s subtly dissonant music score adds to our sense of disorientation. After an uncertain opening act set in Antigua, where the vacationing Muhammad befriends and brings home the sullen Malvo (Tequan Richmond) after the boy is abandoned by his mother, “Blue Caprice” settles into the byways of Tacoma, Wash., for what amounts to a tutorial in hatred.
Muhammad brags about his military service (we later learn he was in the motor pool) and rants about the government that took away his gun, the wife that took away his kids. They hang out with the older man’s friend and fellow veteran (a cheerfully sleazy Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife (a trashily easy Joey Lauren Adams). In one of the film’s most skin-crawling scenes, the two future mass murderers go supermarket shopping while Muhammad strategizes the “slaughterhouse” to come: “Shoot a woman. When they think it’s women, shoot a kid. When they think it’s kids, shoot a pregnant woman.”
The violence, when it arrives, is glanced at sideways and maybe too casually. (Then again, that’s how Muhammad and Malvo saw their victims: as anonymities barely worth the attention.) The film conveys a litany of awful, mundane particulars: The rifle barrel protruding from a hole cut in the trunk of the blue Chevy Caprice, the people going about their business without knowing they’re targets.
What “Blue Caprice” doesn’t convey is what went on inside Lee Malvo’s head. In Richmond’s playing, the boy’s a cipher, angered perhaps by the disappearance of his mother but otherwise surprisingly quick to pick up a gun and act as his mentor’s weapon of revenge. Perhaps that’s the point: An empty vessel is defined by what you fill it with. But that still creates a dramatic hole at the film’s center and an unevenly balanced dynamic between two men who killed as one. In any event, it’s doubtful that Moors wants to solve the mystery of what drove the Beltway snipers. He just wants us to look, and listen, and remember.