Coolly controlled and extremely well-acted, "Blue Caprice" retells the story of the 2002 Beltway sniper killings perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad, a Louisiana native who dreamed of revenge on the nation, and his informally adopted teenage son, Lee Malvo, a Jamaican-American. This is difficult material, not easy to revisit, no matter how many media-smothered mass shootings we've endured (most recently this month's Washington Navy Yard slaughter) in the interim. Director Alexandre Moors, who grew up a graffiti artist in Paris, cannot possibly explain his subjects' actions in under 90 minutes.
Nor is he interested in doing so. "Blue Caprice" is better than that: In its streamlined account of a father/son relationship destined for terrible violence, the film refuses to turn these people into dismissably evil archetypes. What happens carries a crushing randomness, but the film feels emotionally truthful, focusing intently on the corrosion of the young boy's soul.
Lee is played with hushed intensity by Tequan Richmond. His mentor and fearsome father figure is played by the excellent Isaiah Washington, who also executive-produced this picture. These two meet on the island of Antigua; Lee's an orphan who chances upon John playing on the beach with his three children. The circumstances of how the children got there is revealed soon enough, as is the fact of the restraining order placed on John in relation to the mother of those children, whom Lee replaces in his anguished affections. (Portions of the narrative have been fictionalized by screenwriter R.F.I. Porto.)
The movie moves quickly to Washington state, where John's military buddy (Tim Blake Nelson) lives with his beer-swilling girlfriend (Joey Lauren Adams), who becomes involved with John. Nelson's character loves his weaponry and is delighted when young Lee proves to be a crack shot. "Kid's a natural," he says.
But John's world is an unnatural disaster of thwarted ambition and increasingly blinkered rage. He channels everything into fever dreams of retribution, of waking up the public at large with a grandly sinister string of unrelated murders. In Lee, with whom he customizes a used Chevy Caprice to create a rolling sniper's nest in the car trunk, John has his dream accomplice, pliable and desperate to belong to something, anything, anyone.
At one point in "Blue Caprice," Richmond, reading through a military sniper's manual, speaks aloud of learning to "calmly and deliberately" kill. The book instructs the boy to reveal no "anxiety or remorse" regarding what must be done. The film follows that advice, but it never loses its moral compass, jacking things up with the sort of rifle-scope who gets it next? suspense the movies routinely exploit for fun and profit. When the bodies begin to fall, you'd have to be a bit of a fool to feel titillated by the blood.
Washington and Richmond establish a strong acting relationship on screen, allowing themselves no showiness or audience-grabbing tactics. The film doesn't try to pin the killings for which these two were responsible on any one moment, or a single factor in their lives. This is good, shrewd filmmaking up and down.
"Blue Caprice" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for disturbing violent content, language and brief drug use)
Running time: 1:33