Blue CapriceAlexandre Moors / 2013 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Compelling score; Mounting tension; Central relationship
Side Effects: Explanation of motives

Blue Caprice is a moody and knotty exploration of influence and manipulation, an examination into the dynamics of a volatile relationship that results in violence. First-time director Alexandre Moors is more interested in psychological violence than physical bloodshed, in deep internal scars we can’t see, and as a result he skillfully steers his dramatization of the Beltway Snipers away from distasteful shock and easy condemnation.

The film follows the two snipers—the wounded and vitriolic ex-con John, and a lost and abandoned child eager to belong—from their fist meeting in Antigua to their forced separation in prison following a string of murders that left ten dead and sowed terror around the capitol. Isaiah Washington makes John an intense and commanding presence, a facade of strength and calm masking misplaced paranoia and flashes of seething anger. He’s not allowed near his wife and children, and as his hatred festers it radiates out into the world. John’s own abandonment is echoed in Lee: an impressionable blank slate, only given a name at the film’s close.

Blue Caprice wisely focuses on John’s manipulation of Lee rather than the bloodshed itself (the shootings comprise the film’s final 15 minutes or so). Indeed, what’s scariest about Blue Caprice is its perversion of the natural impulses underlying the roles of fathers and sons: nurturing and mentoring, belonging and obedience. Still, the audience feels the inevitability of the shootings to come, and this knowledge imbues the film with a sense of tension and dread. Moors emphasizes these tensions with a disorienting handheld camera, a muted color palette and an extremely compelling and unpredictable score by Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson.

A similar foreknowledge of impending violence is what animates Gus Van Sant‘s Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005). In each film, Van Sant uses stunning long takes to place the viewer alongside its characters, making it the moral task of the audience, not the filmmaker, to assign judgement. Unlike Van Sant’s films, however, Blue Caprice depends on an explanation, however unsatisfactory, for its violence, and John’s diatribes about “evil people” and “hitting back” are among the film’s weakest moments. It would take a more daring formal approach than Moors’ to completely reject a rationalization of these crimes.

Nobody can know why these acts were committed—no answer could ever be convincing—but Moors’ film does provide a framework to recognize that such violence doesn’t require monsters, just simple humans.