It has become such a matter of course to turn traumatic real events into big-screen dramas that viewers aren’t expected to question why real-life pain and confusion carry inherent entertainment value: It happened, therefore it’s fodder, ripe for processing in any number of ways, from the thoughtfully artistic to the unapologetically exploitative.
But precisely because “Blue Caprice” is made with such sensitivity and good taste, it raises troubling questions, not just about its subjects — John Allen Muhammad, Lee Boyd Malvo and the “Beltway sniper” shootings they committed over three weeks in 2002 — but about its purpose. There’s no denying that writer and director Alexandre Moors has made an impressive feature debut with a film that unfolds less as a re-creation than a fragmentary, impressionistic portrait of psychological dependence and manipulation.
And Isaiah Washington, who plays Muhammad and also executive-produced “Blue Caprice,” delivers the kind of attention-getting performance he has long deserved, playing a man who bristles with rage and paranoia but also possesses a soft-spoken, charismatic command presence.
As “Blue Caprice” opens, Muhammad is seen from afar by Malvo (Tequan Richmond), a 16-year-old living in Antigua who spies longingly on the older man as he plays with his three young children. At one point, Muhammad saves Malvo from drowning, a metaphor for what will become a surrogate father-son relationship (and, eventually, two-man cult) for both of them. Muhammad, estranged from his kids by his ex-wife, pours all his bile and patriarchal guidance into Malvo, who has been abandoned by a feckless mother.
“Blue Caprice” focuses on the time the men spent together before coming to suburban Washington to carry out their deranged plan. Most of the film takes place in Tacoma, Wash., where the two live with a military buddy of Muhammad’s, take up target shooting and begin to concoct a plan to destabilize the system that Muhammad believes is responsible for his broken relationship with his family. Malvo, silent, obedient and passive, seeks only to fulfill the filial loyalty the man he calls “Dad” demands; when he turns out to be an unusually good shot behind the sights of a Bushmaster, their destiny seems sealed.
When “Blue Caprice” finally gets to those harrowing days in October, Moors handles the murders with finesse that borders on bloodlessness: We see the bodies, and the clinical way the criminals size up and fell their purposefully random targets, the barrel of the gun poking out from a discreet hole in the back of their Chevrolet. In bringing those grievous events back to life, the filmmaker never succumbs to sensationalism or speechy, showy Moments of Truth: Even Muhammad and Malvo’s arrest — which any conventional movie would have staged as a climactic moment — is kept low-key and off-screen.
As admirable as Moors’s oblique style is, though, “Blue Caprice” doesn’t offer the sense of catharsis or closure, let alone new information, that makes it more than a cold, if disciplined, directorial exercise. Muhammad, who was executed in 2009, and Malvo, who is serving a series of consecutive life sentences, remain enigmatic, remorseless figures, their depravity never deeply examined past their emotional problems and psychological ills. Rather, they just are, an existential fact and mournful mystery that Moors captures but resists probing.
At a time when our collective life is increasingly thrown back at us on screen in virtual real time, the rigor and restraint of “Blue Caprice” are gratifying. But 11 years later, not just the events in question but the movie about them leave audiences with the persistent question: Why?
R. At AFI Silver Theatre and West End Cinema. Contains disturbing violent content, profanity and brief drug use. 93 minutes.