American Nightmare: Blue Caprice, Reviewed

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1. The John Muhammed/Lee Malvo Beltway shootings in October 2002 continue to occupy a specific segment of the American nightmare. The twisted, horrible genius of the killings was their selective randomness: The Beltway snipers chose their targets specifically so that people would believe they could come from anywhere, for any reason. As Muhammed, played by Isiah Washington in Blue Caprice, puts it, "A few bodies. Well, more than a few bodies. Maybe five, six a day, for 30 days. Really get their attention. Random targets. No. Not random targets. We wanna keep them scared. We want them to stay scared. It has to get worse. When they think it's men, do a woman. When they think it's women, kill a kid. When they think it's kids, kill a pregnant woman. A grandma. A cop. At the cop's funeral, plant a bomb. Lots of bombs. Blow up a bus full of cops. They'll have to call in the National Guard then. Total chaos." Muhammed and Malvo had a poorly defined, unrealistic cause, but they had a cause: They wanted to make sure no one felt safe, ever. It is impossible to argue that, for that month in October 2002, they didn't succeed in that cause.

2. Blue Caprice is a look at the relationship between Muhammed and Malvo, but it is pretty much the opposite of some sensationalized portrait. We learn little about either man. We see Muhammed, charming but deranged, and reeling dangerously after losing custody of his children, take Malvo back with him to America from Antigua after Malvo's mother abandons him. The two begin to spiral downhill almost immediately, with Muhammed "training" Malvo (whom he calls his son) in the ways of the gun, of assault and of, ultimately, murder. It is a long trip to the Beltway from Washington state, where they reside, and the journey involves Muhammed pushing the impressionable Malvo further down the road of insanity. Finally they're buying a Blue Caprice, and they're pulling out the back seat, and cutting out a hole in the trunk, and driving east.


3. There are lots of details in the film that will be up for debate, if you've studied the case. The movie has Malvo doing all of the killing—Muhammed is implied to be too cowardly to do anything but order Malvo around—and there doesn't appear to be a sexual relationship between the two. (Malvo has accused Muhammed of both molestation and pulling the trigger.) But this isn't some movie-of-the-week "dramatization." (They already made one of those.) The movie also downplays some of the racial "motivations" of Muhammed. Blue Caprice is less interested in motivations, or machinations, or even the terror in the DC area of those days. It wants, simply, to paint a picture of evil, of madness. It is a monster movie in the truest sense. It shows you how this evil is cultivated, how it flourishes, how it is unleashed... and how it could be right next door to you and you'd never know it.

4. This is director Alexandre Moors' first feature, and it's remarkably assured: He knows exactly what wants to do at every step. I'm most impressed with the film's score, which is wild and chaotic and terrifying; it, like its protagonists, is always on the verge of careening out of control. The movie keeps a tight focus on Muhammed and Malvo—the only other characters we meet are their friends, played by Tim Blake Nelson and Joey Lauren Adams, who sense that there's something wrong with Muhammed and his "son" but have enough of their own problems to stay out of it—and, wisely, never pans out to see the effects their crimes are having on the world around them. This is a mission for these two men, whatever it is, and Moors puts us with them the entire way. It's horrifying.


5. Isiah Washington will receive most of the praise for his committed, controlled performance as Muhammed, but Tequan Richmond has the trickier, and perhaps stronger, job: He has to transition from a confused kid to a killer—a skilled killer, with no remorse, as was his training—and does it seamlessly. By the end, you're more scared of him than you are of Muhammed. Blue Caprice never tries to explain Muhammed or Malvo, or put them into any sort of context, or classify them in any way that makes us easier to deal with them. It simply shows them, digs deep into their world, makes us face exactly what they were doing, leg by leg. It is a portrait of monsters, but the true horror is that there's nothing special about them at all: They are just mad, and motivated, and capable. Blue Caprice doesn't attempt to recreate the Beltway terror of October 2002 through news clips or the stories of the victims. Brazenly, it attempts to reconstruct it from the inside out. This is what the terror really was: This is how it can happen, anywhere. And that's what's most terrifying of all.

Grade: A.