‘Blue Caprice’ and the Delicacy of Dramatized Tragedy

A few years back, I had the misfortune of sitting through B.T.K., one of several highly fictionalized straight-to-DVD horror/biopics of notorious serial killers (similar films had been made about Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, Richard Speck, and the Green River Killer). My interest was (mostly) geographic; I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, where Dennis Rader committed his crimes, and was curious to see how that story would translate to film. Hardly it all, it turned out; the repugnant, exploitative movie begins with the laughable disclaimer “The following is a Fictional Story based on a Real Character,” and bears little resemblance to even the latter half of that equation. In other words, a real killer who ended ten lives was used as fodder for disposable “entertainment,” the tragedies he inflicted transformed into cheap thrills. And it’s important to understand how rampant this kind of thing is when appraising the skill and power of Blue Caprice, a new film that examines the 2002 Beltway snipers in a decidedly more valuable fashion.

Alexandre Moors’ film begins with the expected mournful score and TV news footage: ambulances shuttling victims to hospitals, police officers at crime scenes, choppers flying overhead, press conferences (“Just simply random targets, innocent people”). But then the location changes—we’re in Antigua, and are introduced to Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond), a lonely young man who’s just been abandoned by his mother. Moors keeps his distance, studying this young man, the sun-kissed beaches poignantly incongruent with his loneliness and need. After a time, both lead him to John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington), an American visiting with his three children. Their mother is not there. Soon enough, we realize that he’s taken them from her, and when they’re sent back, he attempts to follow.

These early scenes are leisurely, establishing the picture’s elliptical storytelling style. We’re left to put things together ourselves, as when the two men end up in Washington (the state, that is), and the picture’s quiet dread begins to mount as Muhammad opens up more to his young companion. Wandering his old neighborhood, Muhammad tells Malvo about “the vampires” in his life who “sucked me dry,” explaining simply, “there are some evil people in this world.” The more he talks, the more frightening he becomes; he has plans, big ideas about shaking up the public consciousness through random acts of increasingly shocking violence, a hope for “total chaos” far scarier than what eventually transpired.

Through it all, Malvo listens. Moors understands that in order to wrap one’s head around what they did, we must first understand what they were to each other, and the need each one filled. Muhammad gets a psychological hold on Malvo, seemingly without the younger man realizing it; when Malvo, prompted, says that he loves Muhammad, he is told “Then I need you to do something for me.” Malvo’s resolve is tested when the older man leaves him tied to a tree in the woods, but his loyalty is proven by his instructions, unquestioned, to commit murder. The film wants to know (as much as we do) how, exactly, you could make someone else kill for you.

Blue Caprice is not about details—Moors confidently glides right past the Big Moments throughout, skipping their first sniper kill, the details of their arrest, Muhammad’s trial. They don’t even arrive in D.C. until the 71-minute mark of the 97-minute picture, and while there is a single, chilling scene in which the ritualistic process of selecting and eliminating victims from inside the titular vehicle is dramatized, it is brief and simple.

More telling is a scene shortly after that arrival, as the two men sit in the front seat during a rainstorm and talk. The raindrops fall down the windshield and cast tear-like shadows on their faces, and the echo of In Cold Blood seems both deliberate and purposeful. That was a film in which a senseless murder was dramatized with cold, documentary-style realism, in a manner that could often be described as punishing, and certainly not as pleasurable.

Yet too often, even outside of the realm of those quickie serial killer flicks (and there was one for this story too), the pain and agony of genuine tragedy is cranked up for easy thrills and tears, whether the intentions are honorable (United 93, for example) or less so (Remember Me, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). It’s not that such subjects should be off-limits; true art can help us come to grips with terrible moments in the human experience, to understand them, perhaps even to prevent them from happening again.

But it has to be done carefully, and Blue Caprice is—beyond its value as a challenging and powerful motion picture—a case study in how to do so. This is a film that stubbornly refuses to sensationalize; it’s not interested in how these men killed, or in exploiting and fetishizing those acts. Instead, it explores their humanity—which is revealed to be even more terrifying. “Let’s talk about your victims, then,” Malvo’s attorney proposes, in a jailhouse conference. “The people that you killed. How do you feel about them?” The young man answers with silence. Blue Caprice attempts to fill that silence. It wants to know why, all the while acknowledging that such a thing is probably unknowable.

Blue Caprice is out today in limited release.