Perhaps reading the tabloids gives a greater insight as to why an actor like Isaiah Washington currently works on the periphery of Hollywood. Handsome, forceful, and compelling, Washington drives “Blue Caprice,” a new drama that chronicles the D.C.-wide sniper shootings of 2002. As John Allen Muhammad, Washington is tasked with bringing a semblance of recognizable logic to a man who clearly operated on a more broken plane of morality. It’s not an easy task, as Alexandre Moors’ film also has to present this man as charismatic and friendly enough to make innocents comply with his worldview.
We meet Muhammad on “vacation” with his kids, though the film carefully implies that not all is well. Soon, it’s revealed that Muhammad and teenaged Lee (Tequan Richmond) are both rejected by their families, Muhammad’s forced abduction of his sons a failure, and the unrelated Lee discarded by her own mother. Lee cottons to Muhammad’s forceful side, and while it feels too neat that Lee seeks the first and most convincing father figure in the vicinity, Richmond’s mostly-silent performance sells this unlikelihood.
Now a familial unit, Muhammad barks at Lee as if he were a soldier in his barracks. Most of his life lessons start as speeches before devolving into mumbling grievances, but Lee stays by his side, mostly because the boy simply wants somewhere to belong. The craving for maternal love begins to wane when Muhammad decisively describes Lee’s mother in the same combative terms as his own ex-wife, and by the time Muhammad begins announcing Lee as his son, the two women might as well be fused together in his mind. When Muhammad shacks up with a number of women who eventually reject his freeloading ways, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to control the narrative with his son, while feeding his noble martyr complex.
There are small roles for a gifted ensemble, particularly Tim Blake Nelson as Muhammad’s even-tempered redneck buddy, a part Nelson has mastered by now. Leo Fitzpatrick also appears in a small moment as a shady weapons dealer who fails to earn the duo’s trust. Less prominent is Joey Lauren Adams as the wife to Nelson’s character, underwritten and underutilized as she casually cuckolds her husband before suddenly turning cold to Muhammad’s aggression and casual free-loading. Most of the story is told from Muhammad and Lee’s perspective, but even with their aggression towards the opposite sex, there’s no reason for the one supportive female in the story to be so marginalized.
Like Muhammad’s increasingly fractured mindset, which begins to spill thoughts of conspiracies, the film loses focus as Muhammad’s militant parenting extends to sniping lessons. Soon, the two are taking aim at innocents at a variety of wide-open spaces. These moments are intensely upsetting, as Moors uses their POV to establish serene, nondescript suburban settings, inflating a balloon that will be violently burst with a few meticulous shots. Moors forgoes an impressionistic tactic and shoots these sequences head-on: if you remember this story in the news, it will bring back haunting images. If you don’t recall the furor over these incidents, it will be no less comfortable.
The sense of unknowable danger permeates “Blue Caprice,” so named for the car that the duo calls their home as they engage in their daily assaults. The film can’t seem to place the audience in Muhammad’s mindset, which seems like a shortcoming unless Washington’s performance is taken into account. He’s both ferociously charismatic and deeply unsettling, portraying a nearly unquestionable conviction to his cockamamie theories is easier questioned from the safety of a theater seat, not so much in person. Washington’s performance is one of the best of the year, a high-wire act that is careful not to dip into survivalist caricature, even if the film begins to blister off into a sense of foreboding doom. It commits to turning a complex story, one-dimensional. Fortunately, Washington, in his multi-layered performance, does not. [B+]