Film Review: Blue Caprice

A lightly fictionalized dramatization of the 2002 sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington, D.C. area, this hybrid of a character study and a true-crime account is well-acted and suitably tense, but lacks a deeper resonance.

While almost certainly not intentional, the superficial similarities between Blue Caprice and Fruitvale Station—both of which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—are striking. Like Ryan Coogler’s justly acclaimed first film, the feature-length debut of Alexandre Moors dramatizes a real-life tragedy, opening with actual footage (cell-phone video in the case of Fruitvale and news coverage in Caprice) depicting the incident in question, the 2009 death of Oscar Grant at the hands of Bay Area transit police officers and the 2002 Washington, D.C. area sniper attacks carried out by John Allen Muhammad and his underage accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, respectively. After that documentary-like opening, the two films then rewind the clock and proceed to dramatize the private sequence of events (which span a single day in Fruitvale and roughly a year or more in Caprice) leading up to the public incident.

In each case, the filmmakers’ primary objective is to take audiences behind the stark headlines of the case and reveal the complex, possibly contradictory personalities of the men at the center of the coming maelstrom. But where Fruitvale Station achieves that goal and ventures beyond it—becoming a timely, emotional meditation on the way society at large views young black men and the way they themselves often have to be two or three different people at once—Blue Caprice’s impact is more limited. It’s an evocative account of this particular crime, but it doesn’t speak to anything larger happening in the country or the culture right now.

To be fair, not every film can, or is even intended to, achieve that kind of broader social significance. (Furthermore, Coogler’s picture certainly benefited from being released at a time when those specific issues were already in the news due to a separate criminal case, the death of Trayvon Martin.) And taken solely on its own terms, Blue Caprice is a fine movie, distinguished by strong performances and a loosely fictionalized telling of the actual events that’s gripping and persuasive without being exploitative. It’s also worth noting that Moors and screenwriter R.F.I. Porto present themselves with a bigger challenge than Coogler in that Oscar Grant was the victim of his particular tragedy, where Muhammad and Malvo (played onscreen by Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond) were the cause of their tragedy. Audiences going into Fruitvale Station are more or less primed to view Grant as a sympathetic figure; Blue Caprice has to convince viewers that its two characters are worthy of wanting to be understood.

Porto and Moors attack this problem by shifting the focus of the film from John to Lee, invoking the generally reliable “isolated youth in need of a father figure” narrative. Following the opening news montage, the film cuts away to Malvo’s native island of Antigua, where young Lee watches his mother casually abandon him, driving away with nary a look back. Left to his own devices, the boy leads a vagabond existence, eventually catching the eye of visiting tourist John, on holiday with his three children…who, we come to learn, have actually been kidnapped from their mother, John’s estranged wife. When the time comes for John to return stateside, he brings Lee with him, introducing the kid around as his biological son. (These details are some of the film’s most substantial departures from the historical record—according to several accounts, Lee’s mother was still in the picture when he first met Muhammad and though she left her son behind while she moved to America, he eventually joined her stateside before reconnecting with John.)

While on the surface a handsome, charismatic man supremely capable of making people fall under his spell, John also has a dark side, one that becomes increasingly clear to Lee the more time he spends in his “father’s” company and hears his increasingly irate rants about his ex-wife and the soulless materialism of contemporary American society. (As his last name suggests, the real Muhammad was a Muslim and active member of the Nation of Islam, but his religion is never discussed in any substantial way in the film.) With no home of his own, he and Malvo bounce from house to house, eventually ending up at the home of one of his friends, Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), and his spouse Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams). Army veterans both, Ray and John take Lee on their frequent shooting trips in the woods and, noting the boy’s facility with guns, his guardian puts that talent to use, forcing him to treat actual humans as target practice. Any squeamishness or guilt on Lee’s part eventually falls away thanks to the praise (and intimidation) he receives from the closest thing he’s ever had to a dad, who speaks about their crimes in grandiose terms and eventually outlines a plan to bring the country to its knees through random acts of violence. It’s at this point that John purchases the titular automobile and he and Lee cruise into the D.C. metro area, sniper rifle at the ready.

Moors smartly avoids milking the actual crimes themselves, for the most part only showing the aftermath of the long-range shootings juxtaposed with scenes of the blue Caprice driving along the Beltway, a compelling choice that transforms the otherwise unassuming car into a harbinger of death. And thanks to the groundwork laid by the film’s first hour, the characters’ motivations are clear, even if the chance of sympathizing with either of them is nil (not that the film explicitly asks that of the audience anyway). So yes, Blue Caprice does present an interpretation of history that successfully explains why this tragedy may have occurred. But it doesn’t leave the audience with much to think about beyond the sadness at the senseless loss of life and a boy’s corruption at the hands of a man he trusted. Absent from the film is the nuanced perspective on race and class divisions that Coogler brought to Fruitvale Station or the myriad points of view that made up Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a clear stylistic influence here. (That movie was also notable in the way it avoided offering a definitive account for why its crime—a school shooting—occurred, instead asking audiences to consider the maddening possibility that sometimes bad things happen for no apparent reason.) Blue Caprice comes armed with answers, but misses the chance to pose bigger questions.