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Sundance Review: Does ‘Blue Caprice’ Sympathize With the Beltway Snipers?

Sundance Review: Does 'Blue Caprice' Sympathize With the Beltway Snipers?

From the outset, “Blue Caprice” reaches for authenticity. An opening compilation draws from news reports of the infamous Beltway sniper attacks in which a pair of men picked off random victims for several weeks before authorities finally caught up to them. In spite of this foundation, however, French director Alexandre Moors makes no grand claims to veracity, and includes neither the typical “based on a true story” title card that so often implies authority nor an end credit summing up the fates of everyone involved. Instead, Moors isolates a well-known drama with the fleeting nonfiction prologue and explores it from the inside out: It’s not an attempted reenactment, but it does aim to get at certain truths.

Rather than centering on the sniper shootings themselves, “Blue Caprice” relegates these events to a rushed climax, investing most of its running time in the snipers’ peculiar origin story. They’re certainly an odd couple: John Allen Muhammed (Isaiah Washington), the instigator of the shootings who was put to death in 2009, courts alienated teen Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond) when the young man is abandoned by his mother in the Caribbean. At first a benevolent father figure (although the real Malvo claimed last year that Muhammed sexually abused him), Muhammed helps Malvo find stability during a vulnerable moment and brings him back home to Tacoma, Washington.

From there, Muhammed’s darker intentions gradually come to the fore as his anger toward the world — partly stemming from a divorce that disabused him of his children — manifests in a desire for revenge against society through random acts of violence. He explains his motives in purely abstract terms: “If we can be anybody, then we’re invisible.” The grave-faced, soft-spoken Malvo listens closely to Muhammed and, given no point of comparison, accepts the older man’s angry screed as a vicious gospel.

That’s enough to kick off a downward spiral for Malvo that starts with a single bullet guided by his mentor and culminates with the notorious Silver Spring assault. Still, despite his actions, “Blue Caprice” infers more than it ascertains. By sticking to their perspective, “Blue Caprice” encourages scrutiny of their acts. While Malvo initially displays reservations over the idea of murder, he’s ultimately amenable to Muhammed’s madly prophetic vision of launching a one-man war against American stability. Richmond’s haunting performance leaves much to interpretation. As his expressions evolve from confusion to blind fury, it’s never clear whether his involvement in Muhammed’s scheme results from bad luck or pure corruption. The movie presents these fragmented possibilities and lets us do much of the detective work. The real Malvo eventually admitted culpability and regret, but in “Blue Caprice” he’s a monster until the very end. The question is how he got that way.

Muhammed’s insanity, on the other hand, has no evident source aside from his homegrown lunacy. An unexpectedly eerie Washington constructs an authentic movie monster made all the more menacing by the mounting tension as his plan comes together. He’s the most assertive character in a film exclusively dominated by disturbed, solemn people: Muhammed’s ex-army pal Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), the gun nut who first introduces Malvo to the experience of pulling a trigger, comes across as a similarly isolated figure held back by a lack of the aggression that pushes Muhammed forward. Ray’s promiscuous girlfriend (a randomly cast Joey Lauren Adams) complicates the peculiar relationship dynamic between the men by seducing Muhammed in front of Malvo, possibly motivating the teen to work harder to impress his mentor.

Moors’ screenplay, co-written by R.F.I Porto, adopts an observational angle on these events, only stumbling once the violent events congeal into Muhammed’s incoherent ideology. When the duo heads toward Washington and the body count rises, “Blue Caprice” assembles a montage of killings that belies their significance as the culmination of everything preceding them. But it still leaves enough to the imagination that part of the fascination involves working through the two characters’ motives once they go off the deep end.

In its disquieting mood, the movie contains echoes of Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” another transgressive study of gun violence that borders on sympathizing with its central maniacs. Without going that far, “Blue Caprice” displays a willingness to stand apart from judgement and strike an investigative gaze. The title refers to the beat-up Caprice Classic the men used in their warpath, a striking contrast to the white van authorities long suspected to contain the culprits. That small detail points to the larger search for the reality of the events hovering below the sightline of the ensuing media frenzy.

Moors works against this tantalizing perspective with a doom-laden soundtrack that overstates each creepy new development, particularly since Muhammed’s insanity speaks for itself: “Even if we lose, we win,” he says to his companion. Malvo, given no alternative, embraces that assertion. In the haunting finale, his telling scowl conveys the depths of a dark outcome that the movie has hinted at all along — that cold-blooded murder isn’t evil for the insane willing to embrace its tenets.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering in Sundance’s Next sidebar and repped by Cinetic, “Blue Caprice” has the potential to land a midsize deal with a distributor willing to play up its controversial content and Washington’s return as a serious actor.

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