In 2002, 10 people in this city and its suburbs were killed during a string of shootings that, for three weeks that October, turned every Washingtonian into one of the hunted.
Blue Caprice is not the story of those victims nor the three who survived the wounds inflicted by a pair of gunmen firing bullets from distant hiding places. The first theatrical feature about the D.C. sniper shootings isn’t really about the sniper shootings, period. It’s a movie about the two individuals who caused so much death and panic—the rage-filled John Allen Muhammad and his malleable protégé, Lee Boyd Malvo—and what turned them into an elusive, calculating pair of murderers. Unfortunately, it’s also a movie that offers little fresh insight into that disturbing transformation.
The film opens with a montage of news coverage from that anxiety-ridden autumn, footage that serves as both a foreshadowing of what’s to come and an establishment of Blue Caprice’s chilly tone. Flashing back to the months before the shootings, director Alexandre Moors (making his feature film debut) then introduces Malvo (Tequan Richmond) as a teenager living in Antigua, abandoned by a traveling, working mother and drawn to an island visitor named John Muhammad. As portrayed by Howard University alum Isaiah Washington, Muhammad is charismatic, disciplined, affectionate with his three young children (who will soon be returned to the custody of their mother), and the ideal father figure for a Malvo in dire need of parental guidance.
The two eventually head to Tacoma, Wash., where an increasingly angry and paranoid Muhammad, now stripped of his kids, begins to lay the foundation for his lethal master plan. “A few bodies,” he says, brainstorming while pushing a cart through a grocery store. “Well, more than a few bodies. Five, six a day. For 30 days. Random targets.” Those random targets will be hit by Malvo who, under the tutelage of the man he begins to call Dad, will learn to fire a rifle and suppress any guilt he may feel about ending another person’s life. “You know,” Muhammad reassures him, “it’s not crazy to kill people.”
Both actors do a commendably subtle job of portraying men whose moral compasses lose their calibration. As Muhammad, Washington ditches the baggage of his role as Preston Burke on Grey’s Anatomy, using his naturally commanding presence to demonstrate how persuasive Muhammad must have been. Richmond, also best known for a TV role on the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, quietly conveys Malvo’s reluctant metamorphosis, transforming the look in the boy’s eyes from something open and vulnerable to a gaze both vacant and ruthless.
What ultimately undoes the movie has nothing to do with those performances, but with Moors’ decision to tell the story from such a clinical distance. The whole narrative feels so disconnected from the suffering these two men caused that it’s hard to care much about what transpires onscreen. With a cinematic color palette that skews toward midnight blue and a minimalist screenplay by first-timer R.F.I. Porto, we’re left to conclude that Muhammad and Malvo did what they did simply because the older one was mentally ill and frustrated by the loss of his kids, while the younger was highly susceptible to brainwashing. Other details about the Beltway snipers that subsequently trickled out over the years—like the notion that Muhammad was planning a longer-term effort to inflict terror, or that he, according to an interview with Malvo last year, sexually abused his pseudo-son—are either glossed over or ignored entirely. To Washingtonians who devoured the extensive media coverage that followed the arrests of Malvo and Muhammad at a Maryland rest stop, the conclusions Blue Caprice reaches, while admirably measured, will sound disappointingly familiar.
Blue Caprice has received largely positive reviews from critics who praise the film precisely because of its icy sense of remove. But here in D.C., that tone may not play well. Here, many of us still remember what it felt like in October of 2002 to have our personal terror alert levels set to Code Red. We remember scanning highways and backroads for suspicious white vans when it turned out the real killers were riding around in plain sight, in a vehicle of an entirely different make, model, and color. And due to the recent Navy Yard shootings that claimed more lives in a matter of hours than the snipers took during three long weeks, we were reminded that young men are still turning into killers every day.
In a film like Blue Caprice, restraint is fine, but leaving an audience feeling numb is not. Citizens of a country constantly shattered by gun violence may be sick of numbness and open-ended questions. In tragic cases like the D.C. sniper shootings, finally, we just want some damn answers.