I lived in Northern Virginia and worked in the District of Columbia when John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo roamed the region, terrorizing and killing at random from the trunk of their Blue Caprice. It was more than a decade ago, but I remember the three weeks of horror clearly: running in a zigzag motion into the grocery store to avoid being an easy target, hiding behind a protected corner at the bus stop during my commute to work and seeing the helicopter search lights outside my window after an FBI agent was murdered at the Home Depot across from my apartment complex.
Seeing Alexandre Moors' reimagining of the relationship between John (Isaiah Washington), a 41-year-old former solider who earned expert marksmanship accolades during his time in the Army, and Lee (Tequan Richmond), his 17-year-old accomplice, offered the promise of a glimpse back into time and a fictional look at how together the two were able to terrorize a city and a nation. In total, 10 people were killed and three were injured.
John (Isaiah Washington) practices his target shooting. Photo: Paul Laurens.
After a chilling intro weaving together gruesome crime footage, audio from distraught callers to 911 and the image of the men's car smoothly cruising along the Washington Beltway, Blue Caprice jumps back in time and place to the Caribbean island of Antigua. We're introduced to Lee as his single-mother packs up a suitcase, climbs into a cab and abandons him and their home. John, meanwhile, is vacationing on the island with his three young children—though we find out later though short and simple conversational hints that he'd abducted his children in the midst of a messy divorce and custody battle. A paternal friendship ensues between the two after John saves Lee from drowning in the ocean, and soon, they are traveling back to John's home of Washington state.
There they live with John's girlfriend, stealing her money and gas, until he becomes enraged about not being able to get in touch with his children or ex-wife, who has taken a restraining order out against him. Until now, John appeared only as a doting and loving father—a man with a kind heart and who took in an orphaned teenager. But the frightening behavior begins to gradually show when the two take a walk through John's old neighborhood, the older man grumbling about all the evil people in the world, especially one woman, who testified against him during the custody battle and lives in a house they walk past. “I hope she dies,” he mutters.
For the center bulk of the film, we see John become increasingly angry as he continues the search for his kids. Firearms, from handguns to assault rifles, keep a constant presence in the background and, often, in the foreground. In one scene, John shows Lee how to fight, ties him to a tree in the woods and runs off, leaving the teen alone in a downpour, apparently to test Lee's dedication to him. Lee passes, showing his fidelity in a horrific and soul-crushing way. John responds with pride: “We're invisible. We could do it again. Anywhere we want.”
Along the way, they buy a Blue Caprice, rip out the backseat and carve a hole—perfectly fitting the barrel of a rifle—in the trunk. John discovers his children are living in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., and they hit the road.
The performances of Washington and Richmond were spectacular, and the storyline was compelling—quietly showing, as Moors planned—the development of the dysfunctional relationship between John and Lee and subtly establishing that killers aren't born, but made through circumstance. And though I was engaged from the beginning, the development may have been just a bit too elusive as I often found myself writing “why?” in my notebook. Plenty of men break-up with their wives and lose their children, and lots of teenagers are left behind by the parents without becoming killers. I needed just a tiny bit more, a hint as to why these men were pushed further, to a murderous place of darkness with no regret.
My other small quibbles are just that: small. The roles of Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), John's Army buddy, and Jaime (Joey Lauren Adams) as friends putting up the two seems a bit extraneous, other than being a vehicle to introduce firearms to Lee and to show John's sense of morality isn't solid when he has quick, casual sex with his friend's wife. And, the end of the film feels rushed. Within a span of less than 15 minutes, the men are shooting people all over the D.C. area at random, are arrested and in thrown in jail. The final scene, between Lee and an attorney, falls a bit flat after the build up and action of their terrifying and heinous crimes.
In the end, however, as the gun control debate hangs over the nation, the film effectively offers a look at how two men grew into killers, using assault rifles much like the weapons used at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown and in four other recent U.S. mass shootings. It's a look at history, but also a look at where we are today.
Remaining Sundance Film Festival showings:
Jan. 23, 6 p.m. at the Sundance Resort Screening Room
Jan. 24, noon, Yarrow Hotel Theatre
Main photo by Robert Blake.