This film image released by IFC Films shows Isaiah Washington as John Allen Muhammad, foreground, and Tequan Richmond as Lee Boyd Malvo in “Blue Caprice.” (AP Photo/IFC Films)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — “Blue Caprice” is a disturbing, masterfully controlled thriller based on the 2002 sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The national discussion of mass shootings and gun control stands to heighten the impact of director Alexandre Moors’ head-turning debut, which is driven by performances of brooding intensity from Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond.
Following a grainy montage of news and surveillance video accompanied by traumatized 911 calls reporting shootings in the D.C. area, the story opens amid the lush island vegetation of Antigua in the Caribbean. A teenage boy, Lee (Richmond), watches in mute fury as his mother leaves their home to take work elsewhere, saying she’ll be back for him. But as her absence stretches on, Lee grows bored, frustrated and then desperate, seemingly attempting to drown himself in the rough surf.
He is rescued and taken in by John (Washington), a visiting American whose three young daughters have been removed from their country in violation of a custody agreement. With no word from Lee’s mother, John eventually takes him back to Tacoma, Wash.
From early in their relationship, John begins drilling his life-is-unfair views into Lee, whose absence of a father figure renders him highly susceptible to the older man’s influence. The bottomless pit of John’s anger becomes steadily more apparent back in the U.S., as he takes Lee on a tour of the middle-class suburban neighborhood of his former life. He talks of the evil that lives there, the ghosts left behind, and the vampires like his ex-wife, who sucked him dry. Since their return from Antigua, she has taken out a restraining order against him and removed their children to parts unknown. This gnaws at him like a cancer.
When Lee is taken along with John and his Army buddy Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) to let off steam with some target practice in the woods, he reveals himself to be a natural with a gun. Watching the boy’s face the first time a semi-automatic “widow-maker” is placed in his hands is especially disquieting in light of recent events. After John’s erratic behavior gets them kicked out by his girlfriend (Cassandra Freeman), they end up staying with Ray and his equally trashy partner Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams), providing access to Ray’s arsenal of firearms.
Some of the film’s most powerful scenes are brutal interludes in which John subjects his young protege to various tests, leaving him tied to a tree overnight in the woods or forcing him to fight in a systematic campaign to harden the boy and break his moral resistance.
Demanding proof of Lee’s love and gratitude, John instructs him to shoot a woman who testified against him during the divorce proceedings. That initiation kick-starts the escalating chain of violence that leads them to the D.C. area, where John has traced his estranged family.
Showing refreshing faith in the audience’s ability to connect the dots, Moors employs frequent narrative ellipses and nonlinear editing to strong effect. The film expertly manipulates mood and atmosphere with a muscular sound design that juggles dense textures, uneasy silences, a suspenseful score and striking classical music choices. Visually, too, the work is impressive, with cinematographer Brian O’Carroll’s nighttime shots of the Caprice cruising along the Beltway planting an ominous sense of dread.
The randomness of the Beltway killing spree shocked America a decade ago but recedes from the national memory with every new mass shooting. Revisiting that episode, the filmmakers have made a smart, sobering movie that speculates with compelling detachment on how the abhorrent urge to take innocent lives might evolve.
“Blue Caprice,” an IFC release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “disturbing violent content, language and brief drug use.” Running time: 93 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.