Think “Beltway Sniper,” and what vehicle comes to mind?
Probably not the blue Chevy Caprice actually used by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo in the random killings that terrorized the nation’s capital and its environs in the fall of 2002 — because for most of the investigation, the media’s mantra was to be on the lookout for a white van or box truck.
That’s a vague description, but at least those vehicles are easy to notice. That Caprice, though, was a car so generic and unmemorable as to be practically invisible. And in the hands of two killers, its invisibility only magnified the anonymous unpredictability of the looming danger.
Blue Caprice makes sense as the title of Alexandre Moors’s film on the D.C. snipers: he’s unconcerned with the public face of the incident. This isn’t the white-van version of the story; instead Moors looks to examine the menace that may be hiding out unnoticed behind the faces of the seemingly normal people around us.
The result may be a frustrating film for viewers looking for a straight piece of historical fiction, or for one offering multiple perspectives on a month in which an entire region collectively and anxiously kept one eye looking over its shoulder.
The screenplay, by Ronnie Porto, traffics in the facts only inasmuch as they contribute to the overall goals of the film; when they don’t, they’re altered. This is no photograph, but an impressionistic sketch of the communicability of evil — and in that respect it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking.
While Moors opens the film in fairly generic fashion — archival news footage of the killings, overlaid with 911 call audio — he quickly shifts to the quiet, meditative, observational style that characterizes most of the film.
The action shifts to Antigua, where the teenaged Malvo (Tequan Richmond) has been abandoned by his mother. Shiftless, bored and lonely, he meets up with Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) in dramatic fashion, and the two form a rapid bond, the elder obviously seeing an exploitable vulnerability in the boy’s isolation.
The scenes on the tropical island recall the work of Terrence Malick, the camera dreamily meandering through nature along with Malvo. Moors apes the style more than he infuses it with meaning, but still it works — it conveys the boy’s quiet solitude.
They head back to Muhammad’s home in Washington State, and there Muhammad’s heightened sense of persecution and inability to take responsibility for his actions are revealed. This is a man who, when caught in a lie, manages to blame the person who found him out for the transgression.
He’s calm and charismatic with Malvo, and Washington is frightening in these sequences, making the character seem all the more evil by giving him a calm demeanor even as he indoctrinates Malvo with declarations of vengeance and hatred — poison delivered casually, in the innocuous sterility of a grocery-store aisle.
The film does eventually falter slightly when it moves to satisfy expectations that it will show the actual events of the attacks. Moors keeps the pair from even arriving in the D.C. area until more than two-thirds of the way into the film, and he handles the shootings themselves with sensitivity; still, it’s hard for things not to feel a little programmatic at this point.
More problematic is that the director doesn’t quite trust the resonant power of his earlier scenes; he chooses to flash back to key moments that observant viewers will have already flagged in their minds as important. Showing them again amid the carnage makes points that had strength in their subtlety seem too obvious.
Moors’ film is at its best when it worries at notions of how evil is born, fostered and brought to bloom. Where it was in his own past that Muhammad went so wrong is tough to tell, but he infuses that already flourishing malevolence into Malvo like a master glassblower, carefully filling up his creation from within his own lungs and shaping him to his ends.
The Malvo of the opening is an innocent, abandoned child. The unredeemable one in the film’s final scene is little different from his rifle: a machine built for killing. (Recommended)