‘Blue Caprice’ Review: A Fascinating Fictionalized Character Study of the Beltway Snipers

By  · Published on September 13th, 2013

Editor’s Note: Kevin’s review of Blue Caprice originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release.

The Beltway Snipers captivated the country’s attention and established a shroud of fear for people living in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia back in October of 2002. Blue Caprice is loosely inspired by that story, keeping some of the key players and events while changing backgrounds and actions significantly. Director Alexandre Moors (Cruel Summer) wanted to focus on the relationship between the elder John Allen Muhammad and the younger Lee Boyd Malvo rather than making the film about the actual murders themselves.

Fiction diverges from reality right from the beginning of the film, with Lee (Tequan Richmond) first encountering John (Isaiah Washington) in Antigua after his mother leaves him to fend for himself. In reality, John met and knew Lee’s mother. For those familiar with the backstory of the actual Beltway Sniper attacks, this signifies that the film takes its own path. But for people unfamiliar with the particulars, this might be a case of fiction becoming a false reality. It’s more very loosely based on a true story than it is meant to be historical fiction.

John brings Lee with him back to the United States, and begins calling him his son. At first, he appears to be a harmless, caring man, although it isn’t long before the harsh reality of the situation sets in. John has a deeply held anger against his ex-wife for taking his kids away from him, and he begins to unveil a plan to unravel the government by sowing extreme discord. He envisions shooting five or six people a day for 30 days, going after varied targets so as to confuse the police. After that, John claims, things will fall apart on their own.

But John can’t get there on his own, and he uses everyone he knows as a rung on a ladder to get there. He and Lee hook up with Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), one of John’s buddies from military service. Ray owns several guns and takes the guys out shooting, but as much as John talks about training and the service, Lee finds out he only served in the motor pool with Ray. He’s not quite the elite commando that he would have Lee believe.

So, John begins to shape and mold Lee into a tool, first training him in combat, and then leaving him tied up in the woods to teach him survival. But the ultimate test comes when John asks Lee to kill someone in order to prove his loyalty. He does, but then he begins having second thoughts and wants to back out. When John won’t let him, Lee undergoes a radical transformation and their roles slowly begin to trade places. They acquire a blue Chevy Caprice, which they outfit with a sniper’s nest in the trunk, and hit the road.

One night, John wakes Lee in the car, which is parked outside his ex-wife’s house. John rants about her, to which Lee replies, “It’s not about her anymore.” And they press on with the sniper attacks, which are shown in a montage without focusing much on the victims. But rather than extending their killing spree, they are caught sleeping in their car and taken into custody. The film closes with Lee being interviewed in prison, explaining that people will never understand what they were trying to do and asking when he can see his father.

But this closing scene also represents one of the fundamental problems I have with this film. Lee undergoes such a change in his character, going from reluctant killer to the one driving the plan forward, and it isn’t quite clear when or even how that happened. It’s obvious that John has exerted an extreme amount of control over Lee, but not enough to make him stop questioning what they are doing after Lee’s first kill. Perhaps Lee sees John as weak and ineffective when he finds them parked outside his ex-wife’s house. Or maybe he just wants to be the best tool possible for his “father,” so that he can accomplish what the older man couldn’t.

At any rate, Blue Caprice is a fascinating character study and a fictionalized, human look at two people who went on a murderous rampage and killed innocent people for their beliefs. It doesn’t answer any questions, nor does it try to.

Upside: While John could have easily been portrayed as unhinged, Washington brings a quiet anger to him that seethes just below the surface. Which is almost always more terrifying than someone who just lashes out at everyone.

Downside: Nelson has a lot of choice scenes as Ray, but Joey Lauren Adams, as his wife Jamie, is a wasted opportunity. She’s grown leaps and bounds beyond her Chasing Amy days, and we’d like to see her get the chance to stretch her acting legs.

On the Side: There have already been two movies made about the Beltway Snipers: D.C. Sniper and the made-for-cable D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear. But both of these focus on the killings themselves, whereas Blue Caprice attempts to make the story about the killers more “human,” according to Moors.