Sundance In-Depth Analysis: “Blue Caprice”

“Blue Caprice” is a terrifying film, because its major events actually happened. If the Joker was a real-life villain and not just a comic book character, he might look a lot like John Muhammad.

John was one of the D.C. Snipers, a pair of shooters who terrorized the Beltway by shooting random targets from the trunk of a Blue Caprice. The film is a slow burn, as the terrorists slowly make their way towards their killing spree. It reaches into the dark depths of humanity and refuses to let the audience come up for air.

The beginning of the film takes place in the tropics, where teen Lee Malvo is living a life of abandonment. His mother left, and may not be coming back. She tells him to make friends with the man down the street while she’s gone. That man is John. John is a kind man, who takes Lee under his wing and treats him like a son. But John also has a short temper, and is particularly angry over his ex-wife trying to take custody of his three kids. He loves to hunt, and releases his anger by shooting firearms in the woods. But this isn’t satisfying. He wants to send a message. A message of chaos.

The film’s themes are nothing short of chilling. The story of John and Lee shows that, while some men are born violent, others are trained to be that way. Lee is a directionless youth, and John’s words quickly take a hold of him, brainwashing him into thinking that killing is the only way to solve his problems. It’s a subtle indictment of our current culture, which emphasizes widespread ownership of firearms but has little knowledge about the inner-workings of mental illness. It may be too early for a Sandy Hook drama, but this film covers similar ground in terms of our gun culture. There’s also a psychological mentality that permeates the story. John wants to kill because it makes him feel powerful. He may want to take out his violence on his ex-wife, but he doesn’t know where to find her. He is helpless. But killing other people could provide the same psychological release. Or so he thinks.

“Blue Caprice” is a brilliant examination of the nature of violence in our society.

The screenplay is brilliantly penned by R.F.I. Porto. We had an opportunity to speak to him about his writing process after the screening. One of the things he said that really stuck out is that, if you’re a beginning writer, you can’t write a first screenplay like “Blue Caprice.” It will destroy you. Writing this story took him to some very dark places, place of depression and doubts. It’s easy to see why. Getting into the psychology of a killer, particularly a real-life one, must be extraordinarily difficult.

One of the great sins committed in the film is the sin of pride. John quickly falls into the “us versus them” mentality of many killers, and he drags Lee there with him. He refers to those around him as “evil people,” and explains to Lee that “life is not fair.” Life beats the goodness out of you, and the only way to respond is to beat back, rally against all of those people who are so much worse than you are.

John’s brainwashing of Lee is all the more terrifying because it seems natural. Lee wants to win his “father’s” approval, so his first kill is a woman who John said testified against him in court. Lee shoots her in the face before questioning whether he “killed the wrong lady.” “Don’t you see?” John responds. “It could be anyone.” The random targets will prevent the authorities from attaching any sort of pattern or motive to the killings.

The killings themselves are violent but restrained. Lee’s first couple of kills, prior to the D.C. spree, are startling for how cold, bloody and immediate they are. The killing spree itself, which doesn’t begin until the last half hour of the film or so, is less graphic. I appreciate the filmmaker’s tact in shooting these scenes. We could have seen sniper bullets ripping someone’s head open, but that would be dishonorable to the memories of the real-life victims. What we see, instead, is the aftermath. The bloodied bodies lying in the street, at the gas pump or in their cars; the 9/11 calls and emergency response crews as they arrive at the scene. And yet, the threat of violence is always there. We don’t see Lee with his hands on a rifle until the killers are already well into their spree. When we do, Lee is sitting in the trunk of the Caprice, peeking through the hole in the trunk, through which the barrel of the rifle is resting. Lee chooses his target carefully, as John coaches him from the front seat. He chooses his target and shoots, but all we see is the cut to black and hear the piercing shot of the rifle.

I thought the film’s portrayal of violence was tasteful, and refusing to show a lot of gore actually made the film feel more violent. In a film culture saturated with action stars who kill hundreds of bad guys in one film, the filmmakers here remind us that every human life matters, and ensure that we will feel the impact of every life taken. It’s a subtle indictment of the medium of film and its power to desensitize us to exactly the kind of real-life violence that John and Lee committed. A movie made me feel guilty for watching other movies so casually. How ironic.

Back to the guns, the sound in this movie is some of the best I’ve heard. An audience member asked the director, Alexandre Moors, why they made the guns sound so loud that the audience jumped every time one was shot. He said that, in most films, the sound of the gun is toned down so that it doesn’t have that same visceral shock. Their goal was to do the opposite. The sound designer actually raised the sound of the gunshots, so that each one would feel like it was being fired right next to you. I thought the effect was jarring and effective.

Another success of “Blue Caprice” is the cinematography. The film is shot in hues of deep blue, creating a somber tone that also helps to complement the color of the Caprice itself. It also helps to contrast the beginning of the film, the part that takes place in the tropics. This section is much more colorful, as Lee’s life is ahead of him and John is living a seemingly happy life with his three kids.

I find it interesting to compare “Blue Caprice” to another Sundance drama based upon violent real-life events and starring an African-American cast. Compared to the phenomenal “Fruitvale,” “Blue Caprice” is a less pleasant film to sit through. I took fewer breaths and laughed less during it. In both films, we already know the outcome, thanks to both history and raw live video of the protagonists’ fates included at the beginning of the films. The themes of the films are also surprisingly similar. Every life matters. Violence can happen to anyone. African-Americans can be the victims as often as the perpetrators, just like everyone else. I think “Fruitvale” is perhaps a better film overall, willing to take the audience to more areas of human existence and make it feel a wider range of emotions. But, days after attending both screenings, “Blue Caprice” is sitting with me more. I can’t get it out of my head.

As a viewer, I tend to gravitate toward films that reveal the darker areas of the human psyche. Films like “Taxi Driver” and “There Will Be Blood” are near the top of my list of all-time favorites. I think our own darkness can often reveal more about who we are than the light can. We are sinners in need of redemption, and we are all, deep down, capable of doing similar things to our fellow man, under the right circumstances.        When we hear of acts of unspeakable violence in our world, we often ask, ‘how can one human being do that to another?’ This film responds, “Just like this.” We see how easily our fragile human nature can be manipulated and molded by those stronger and smarter than us, for better or worse. This idea is hammered home in the haunting final moments of the film, where Lee, now in custody, is asked a question during an interrogation, after he and John have been caught. “You do know he’s not your father, right?” Lee doesn’t answer, but simply stare forward at the screen. Lee may be beyond saving, all because of one man. That, to me, is the very definition of human depravity.