For a film that’s inspired by acts of violence — the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks that resulted in the shooting deaths of 10 people in Maryland — it’s remarkably calm, even contemplative. The film doesn’t seem all that interested in the violence, per se: The first attack doesn’t occur until the 1:10 mark in an hour and a half film, and that’s the only shooting during which we actually see a bullet hit a body. The apprehension of the two men, Lee and John, is represented only by the blurred headlights of the police cars surrounding them, a calm scene without a struggle. We can doubt that’s how it played out in the real world.
In non-film reality, the older man’s name is Muhammad. In the film, he’s referred to by his birth-name John, one of several changes the film makes that differs from the news accounts, another being the jihadist sympathies and propaganda of both men. Blue Caprice isn’t all that interested in strict verisimilitude. So if you’re expecting a verite-style exposition of what actually happened those three weeks in Maryland and assertions as to why, you’ll probably be disappointed. Unlike many films of its basic type, there’s no intertitle claiming that anything that’s shown was based or inspired by real events, even though most of a US audience would be familiar with them. The opening shots are, however, taken from news footage of the aftermath of several shootings.
The film does try to create impressions of how Lee Malvo, the 17-year-old orphaned boy from Jamaica, and John Allen Muhammad, 48, came to know each other and decide to engage in a strange project to terrorize several communities. A father-son dynamic is quickly set up with Malvo, played by Tequon Richmond, accepting John, played by Isaiah Washington, as a father figure, and with unquestioning obedience, servitude and a desire to emulate and please the older man. Despite the title of the film, the strongest, most frequent and most memorable image is that of Lee Malvo’s face. Richmond was clearly cast for his beauty as much as anything else, and that’s seen even after his character’s first kill shows him with a blood-splattered face shot in the stark glare of a porch light. His face is not the first thing we see but it is the last.
Both Malvo and the car they drive are often shot using a tracking camera that follows them as they move. Unlike most instances of that shooting style that I can think of, the camera is placed slightly off to the side and above, noticeably higher than similar shots in recent films like Simon Killer and A Teacher, or in older films like The Son or The Wrestler. And it drifts, enhancing the dreamlike twilight-lit quality of much of the imagery in the film. The camera follows the blue Caprice, with its blacked-out windows and the sniper hole cut out in the trunk, as it travels the highways and roads of Maryland. It’s hypnotic in its zen-like menace. Renee Zelwegger’s character comments in one shot as it drives off with the pair inside: What an awful car.
The film’s slow-building power sent me off to investigate the incidents that it’s based on. I knew the outline of what had happened but very little about the men themselves. So I watched a Discovery channel documentary about it and also read an article about Malvo written 10 years later. It’s accompanied by an audio interview he gave from prison. In that he confesses that he was sexually abused by Muhammad. Although the film doesn’t hint of any homoerotic subtext in their relationship, other than having other characters point out that they’re not really father and son, despite their closeness, it’s eerie that Malvo/Richmond is presented consistently as an object of beauty. For me then the most affecting scene is when, after getting thrown out of John’s girlfriend’s home, the pair are left on the streets together to figure out what to do next. John begins ranting about his random-target “project” and wants Lee to reassert his commitment to it by asking him, “Do you love me?” There are a couple of beats and Lee nods yes, ever so slightly, most of his body out of the frame in medium shot, his face in oblique profile, down-screen in a corner but filling it with the smallest gestures of assent, which nonetheless bring on such gigantic consequences.
And that’s what love can do, too.