Blue Caprice begins with archival footage of shootings by the Beltway snipers accompanied by actual 911 phone calls. It’s the only documentary aspect of a film that, by the writer’s account, is a “hypothesis” of what may have led to the Beltway snipers, and indeed, the credits include a note that the film is based partly on true events, the characters are fictional. That’s not to say that the Beltway snipers are fictional, but their image formed on the screen, the understanding we come to because of the film, is entirely fictional, based on undocumented aspects of their lives. The archival footage lets you know exactly where the film is going and makes clear that it has no intention of raising the “will they do it?” question, even if this is a fictionalization.
Both shooters, the quiet Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond) and John Allen Muhammed (Isaiah Washington), are plagued by family problems. Lee is abandoned by his mother in the Caribbean and taken in by John, who loses his kids after what was certainly a nasty divorce. Both backstories are quite murky, but the point comes across strongly regardless—Blue Caprice is a film about family, the importance of a good one and the danger of a bad one, explored in an intricate but vague way. Intricate because John’s family appears (mostly in conversation but also on screen, once) just before crucial events, vague because John’s progression, from loving and misguided father to excessively violent, and Lee’s transition, from independent loner to vulnerable surrogate son, are quite choppy. Lee survived on his own for quite some time; his rescue at the beginning is suspicious (if he is attempting suicide, why did he follow John and his kids? If he isn’t, he’s obviously quite the conspirator himself) and he has made it to high school, presumably with his mother, who is admittedly absent. Perhaps that’s the point, that no explanation of familial backstory is good enough to explain the Beltway tragedies, but that invalidates both characters, and so what are we left with? The vision extends much more broadly, to indoctrination of youth culture in general, by family or otherwise—there is a seemingly unimportant scene focusing on military recruitment, and several scenes of John’s friends—but the idea never fully emerges.
The improper motivations, the shifts in character that occur at jumps in time, are frustrating, but watching John and Lee interact is a reward on its own. If Lee has more than five lines of dialogue with more than five words in them, they certainly aren’t important. It’s a quiet performance, but Richmond’s inquisitive, subtle stare is a perfect Rorshach Test for a film that demands it; what we see in it tells more about us than it does about him. The best we can do is theorize about what led a teenager to team up for a murder spree, and the stare works with our own understanding of what has come before—no doubt familial based on what we have seen—and our own explanations to create Lee Malvo as we try to know him. Isaiah Washington lets the cat out of the bag too soon and the character interplay becomes far too convenient, but his grandstanding is appropriately chilling, even if temporal ellipses let everything fall into place too easily.
Despite the overly-accommodating script, Blue Caprice has its fair share of strong scenes—particularly near the beginning and the end—and its strict adherence to character perspective encourages scrutiny, so the film’s slight drag to its inevitable conclusion is far slighter than it could be. Much of this is also due to Alexander Moors, who demonstrates a remarkable sense of poise in his debut feature. There are no superfluous shots, but more importantly, there are none that go on too long. Moors’ sense of rhythm, as well as his understanding that what you don’t see often haunts far more than what you do, makes the third act killings, prone to repetitiveness and predictability, perhaps the film’s strongest segment.
The lensing in general is quite strong, as well; Brian O’Carroll does a great job of capturing proper amounts of light, turning Caribbean landscapes into majestic landscapes and turning Tacoma, Washington—where much of the film takes place—into a seeming ghost-town, showcasing both fog and darkness that are clearly analogous to the shooters and our understanding of them.
Thanks to the impressive craftsmanship, Blue Caprice is able to overcome its script and present itself as a solid work. It’s not the final say on the American tragedy of mass shootings, but its focus ensures that it isn’t trying to be, either. Blue Caprice is timely, but almost incidentally so; it’s a film that would be just as effective if it were released at any other time thanks to a merciful lack of presumptuous monologues or and limited attention to gun portrayal as a whole. Blue Caprice is about indoctrination and family, and on that level it is success, albeit a qualified one.