Blue Caprice

“Blue Caprice” is a loosely fictionalized account of the “Beltway sniper” attacks that killed 10 people and terrorized the Washington, D.C., metro area for three weeks in 2002. Except the film’s not about the attacks themselves: it’s about the killers and their backstories. In the true-crime tradition, the idea here is to take us into the minds of the murderers, not to justify or excuse what they did but to show what led to it.

I almost said the point was to explain what led to the killings, but that’s wrong. Chillingly, the film’s explanation is that there really isn’t one. Nothing caused the killings other than good old-fashioned misplaced rage. The title refers to the car the killers drove and were eventually captured in, but it’s also grimly appropriate given the non-automative meaning of “caprice” as sudden, impulsive, and seemingly unmotivated behavior. First-time feature director Alexandre Moors and screenwriter R.F.I. Porto unnervingly convey the killers’ methodical yet ultimately random cruelty, and they do it without being exploitative. The evil is coldly matter-of-fact, not sensationalized.

The opening credits use news footage and actual 911 calls (which are distressing to hear) to recap the well-known events: a killing spree, a manhunt, and the eventual arrest of the perpetrators. With that documentary summary serving as prologue, the film proper begins in the Caribbean city of Antigua, where an abandoned 16-year-old boy named Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond) serendipitously finds a savior in an American named John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington). John is in Antigua on “vacation” with his three young children, which we understand to involve a custody dispute back in the States. John takes Lee under his wing, becoming a sort of father figure, albeit an irresponsible and reckless one.

So far, nothing in the movie itself has indicated that these characters are destined to be the D.C. snipers. After those opening credits, the story could just as easily be about the police who pursued and captured them — in which case we’d be prepared for a triumphant ending, since we know justice was eventually served. But something tells us this isn’t that story. Our movie-watcher’s intuition (or perhaps our knowledge of the real-life events) suggests it will be the more sinister angle.

We jump ahead five months to John bringing Lee home with him to Tacoma, Wash. (In real life, there were several steps between the Caribbean and Tacoma — and it look much longer than five months — but there’s no reason to quibble over artistic license if it makes the story less complicated.) John refers to Lee as his “son,” taking him around town and monologuing as the taciturn lad walks a few steps behind, soaking it all in but saying little. We soon realize that John is bitter and resentful about his divorce and about life in general. He doesn’t know where his wife and children are, only that they have a restraining order against him. He has a hot temper.

He also has a friend who owns an astonishing arsenal of guns. This guy, a wormy dirtbag named Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), takes John and Lee out for target practice in the woods near Tacoma, where it becomes clear that Lee is something of a natural. With John’s stream-of-consciousness tirades growing more fervid and violent in nature, and with Lee willing to do anything John asks of him, the film’s sense of doom grows stronger. Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s ominous, agitated musical score adds to the melancholy tone.

Isaiah Washington, who has been off the radar since leaving “Grey’s Anatomy” six years ago, does impressive work as John, refusing to make him either an unmitigated monster or a misunderstood tragic figure. John initially seems like such a loving dad type that it’s unsettling when his darker side begins to manifest itself (and it really does manifest itself). Washington makes the transition feel authentic, as if the two sides were there all along and we just didn’t notice. Tequan Richmond is also effective as Lee, a neglected kid who fell under the spell of a sociopath and became a real tragic figure. His continuing devotion to the only man who ever showed him love or discipline is heart-rending.

B+ (1 hr., 33 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some moderate but disturbing violence.)

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