Highway to hell

'Blue Caprice' explores the murky motives of the Beltway snipers

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Helter skelter: Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and Malvo (Tequan Richmond) plot a murder spree.
COURTESY OF IFC FILMS

arts@sfbg.com

FILM On Oct. 24, 2002, a man and a teenager were arrested upon being found sleeping in their car at a Maryland rest stop. That ended the three-week reign of terror known as the Beltway sniper attacks, in which 13 people were shot (10 fatally) in a wide area surrounding Washington, DC. When facts started coming to light, what seemed most striking about these attacks were their utter randomness — the perps had pre-selected locations but not victims, the latter being just passers-by ranging from age 13 to 72 — as well as the curious relationship between the two shooters.

Forty-one-year-old John Allen Muhammad had met 17-year-old Jamaican Lee Boyd Malvo three years earlier when on a vacation with his three children in Antigua. (He'd actually kidnapped them for this purpose.) Malvo, who was more or less parentless, was sorely in need of guidance and a guardian. Taken back to the US by his new protector, the boy got a perverse dose of both, and was too grateful, gullible, or intimidated to question it.

A former US Army mechanic and driver, Muhammad lived an itinerant lifestyle with his new "son," moving them from one end of the country to another with very little stability. Meanwhile Malvo was encouraged to steal — shoplifting the Bushmaster XM-15 with which they later committed the Beltway attacks — schooled in expert marksmanship, and inculcated in his "dad's" bizarre antisocial, paranoid, punitive ideas about "waking people up" to the "evil" in the world. Phase One of the plan was purportedly to kill six white people a day for one month; the final goal was either (according to defense attorneys) to regain possession of Muhammad's biological children, or (according to Malvo) to extort millions from the government to create a boot camp for other boys, who'd be trained to help trigger some murky downfall of our corrupt society.

Alexandre Moors' first feature Blue Caprice offers an unsettling if ambiguous take on a case that still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Here, Lee (Tequan Richmond) has been abandoned by his negligent mother when he spies tourist John (Isaiah Washington of Grey's Anatomy) frolicking with his younger kids; hungry and otherwise needy, he follows them around, eventually making a desperate bid for the older man's attention.

Taken to the US, Lee accepts whatever strange wisdom his minder has to offer — that the latter's ex-wife is "a fucking vampire;" that he himself needs brutal "training" that includes his being left tied to a tree deep in a forest; and that if he really loves his "dad," he needs to complete various tasks as ordered, including shooting a particular woman point-blank in front of her home — even if later it turns out she "might have been the wrong woman."

All this seems some sort of paramilitaristic preparation. But it's also an outlet for John's bottomless, often scarifying anger, and his need to create someone as emotionally disconnected from other humans as himself. For a while they stay with a former Army buddy and fellow weapons enthusiast (Tim Blake Nelson) who's too much of a good ol' boy to sense anything wrong about the visitors. But Ray's wife (Joey Lauren Adams) does, and there's tension in the way her suspicion might make her the latest woman John regards as an enemy.

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