Alexandre Moors’ chilling, confidently minimalist feature debut is a horror film that doesn’t try to shock. It’s a slow immersion into a claustrophobic box of paranoia that makes the real world feel like a long, long way away. This is about the only approach that feels appropriate for a story based on the Beltway Sniper case. Over the opening credits, Moors shows news footage of the reign of terror led by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, when they gunned down some 13 people at random during October 2002. The music is a downbeat fugue, which sets the tone for the rest of this mourning story which never pretends it knows the answer to the one question that matters: Why?
Tequan Richmond plays Malvo as a nearly mute teenager, first seen being abandoned by his mother in Antigua. When Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) first appears, he’s a cheerful vision in white, strolling on the beach with his kids, every inch the doting father that Malvo doesn’t seem to have known. By using Malvo as the audience’s entrypoint in Muhammad’s world, information comes in scraps, but it still doesn’t take an astute viewer to figure out that Muhammad is trouble. There are hints of an army past that ended badly, a marriage that went even worse.
Soon, Muhammad is back in Washington state with Malvo, passing him off as his son. The children are long gone, back to their mother who has filed a restraining order. Without a job or family, Muhammad turns all his focus, and the full fury of what he sees as the injustices of the world, on Malvo. Moors’ skill is such that their relationship is able to seem like a good one at first, as though they are two lonely souls who have found somebody to hunker down with. That makes it all the more frightening when Muhammad’s long, rolling monologues to Malvo become less life instructions than training sessions for the killing to come.
Washington doesn’t make Muhammad an obvious psychopath. When approached by a store manager who notices Malvo shoplifting, Washington flips seamlessly from his speech on how to bring a city to a halt (“Five or six people a day, for thirty days”) to being every inch the concerned, disciplining parent. Similarly, Richmond tamps down the bright-eyed spark he used on Everybody Hates Chris and plugs into Lee’s initially confused and eventually malevolent silence. Even when approached by a fellow teenager who seems friendly enough, Malvo has no ability to respond or connect. He has all the social skills of Travis Bickle, which makes Muhammad’s Manson-like campaign of psychological dependence on him all the more effective. As Muhammad seems to be the one person who seems to have ever put himself out there for Malvo, it’s easy to imagine that this quiet kid would do whatever was asked of him.
Working from a spare but psychologically acute script by R.F.I. Porto, Moors creates a disturbing portrait of two rootless men in free fall. There is only the occasional interaction with one of Muhammad’s old army buddies, played by Tim Blake Nelson, whose laid-back bonhomie seems planted there just to show precisely how detached Muhammad and Malvo have become from ordinary human life. Otherwise, this is a film that speaks the dead language of roads, parking lots, and cars. True to the flatlining psychopathology of his characters, Moors barely varies his rhythms once Muhammad buys the Caprice and engineers it into the rolling sniper’s nest that roamed the District of Columbia for all those weeks. More impressively, once the killings begin, it’s shot nearly without sensationalism, but instead with a kind of stomach-churning anguish.
Muhammad’s rationale for the purposefully random killings is simple: Civilization is a teetering thing, “All it needs is a push.” What is most horrifying about Blue Caprice is just how little he or Malvo care about why they’re pushing it.