For people who were living in the D.C. area during the Beltway sniper spree of October 2002, the big dislocation of Blue Caprice—Alexandre Moors's new movie about the killers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, played here by Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond—is that we aren't in it. The surreally spooked atmosphere, the skittish way we'd scan the horizon on public errands, The Washington Post's film reviewer Stephen Hunter venting his gun fetish in the guise of providing useful information … nope, none of that is on-screen. Not that it matters much, since few Washington moviegoers are likely to want to revisit the episode the same week that the Navy Yard massacre topped Muhammad and Malvo's death toll in a single morning.
It's a basic rule of movie criticism that you don't scold a director by describing the movie he or she should have made. In this case, however, the subject matter is literally too close to home; I can't help it that I was living in Arlington at the time. The Home Depot where Muhammad and Malvo killed Linda Franklin—the ninth of the pair's ten victims—was my Home Depot, and so on. I remember having to go there when the duo was still on the loose and how seeing the flowers in Franklin's memory out front got mixed up with jitters about psychotic lightning striking twice. Countless Washingtonians must have similar recollections, which they won't see re-created here.
But now that I've gotten unprofessionally cranky about what Moors left out, let me put my reviewer's hat back on and grant that the movie he did make is pretty good. Muhammad and Malvo don't even get to D.C. until the final act. Then the killings are disposed of as tersely as possible, an anti-sensationalistic choice that comes at the cost of disregard for the victims' identities (they aren't characterized or individuated at all). The murders are essentially a Q.E.D. addendum to what interests the director most: the evolution of Muhammad and Malvo's grotesque parody of a father-son bond.
They first meet in Antigua, Malvo's home. Then 17-year-old Lee ends up with John in Tacoma, Washington, mainly because nobody else seems to give a damn what becomes of him. (His mother might, but there isn't a lot she can do.) Lee likes the U.S.A., but he doesn't have much chance to get acclimated. He's getting steeped in Muhammad's worldview instead—a buildup of rankling resentments at his estranged wife in particular and then the whole system he feels screwed by, letting him either delude himself or con his protégé into believing that his simmering rage is a) somehow political and b) justifies drastic, random violence. Needless to say, Charles Manson worked from the same toolbox—but instead of acquiring a whole "family" to make his murderous fantasies come true, John only has Lee.
As you watch, it's easy to imagine a similar dynamic at work between Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. What emerges most vividly—and it's no fun to say so, since compassion for Malvo doesn't come easy—is how defenseless the teenager is against this crackpottery. All he would need to figure out that Muhammad is demented is a reliable point of comparison, but that's just what he lacks. (Tim Blake Nelson plays the gun nut who helps the pair get weaponized, and his cheerful complacency hardly qualifies him as a voice of sanity.) As far as we can see, Lee becomes a killer in no small part because nobody's ever treated him before as if he has a useful purpose; hearing that he's a "natural" with a rifle could be the first time he's been congratulated about anything. Anyhow, he's got nowhere else to go, as Muhammad reminds him by tethering him to a tree and abandoning him in the woods to howl for Dad. Then they're off to D.C. in the blue Chevy Caprice whose trunk they've turned into the suburban equivalent of a duck blind.
The subplot-free narrative means that Moors's two lead actors have to carry the movie pretty much unassisted, and they're both fine. Bulkier and more grizzled than he was in his Grey's Anatomy days, Isaiah Washington is appropriately daunting. As my colleague David Edelstein has suggested, if the actor is still seething about getting fired from Grey's for his anti-gay slurs—his formerly promising career has never recovered—that may have helped him tap into Muhammad's misplaced sense of being more sinned against than sinning. In any case, Washington doesn't make the mistake of signaling he knows he's playing someone evil. What makes his Muhammad unnerving is that this is a man convinced, above all, that he's right—and that everything he says and does makes sense, no matter how lunatic it looks and sounds to us.
Richmond's Malvo is the trickier role, mostly because he doesn't verbalize a whole lot. His evolution from a malleable kid to a juvenile killing machine happens mostly in his eyes. You can't shake a sense that he was Muhammad's first victim—and Muhammad's proudest creation, too—but that doesn't make Malvo any less frightening or beyond redemption by the end. That transformation has contemporary implications ranging well beyond this particular pair. People who wonder how terrorist outfits go about successfully recruiting teenage suicide bombers could do worse than start with Blue Caprice.
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