The advertisements for this film by Alexandre Moors contain the blurb “based on the true story of the DC snipers.” One would think that the claim of “true story” would have run its course (at least for those seriously interested in the medium) in film advertising decades ago, especially after filmmakers like the Coen brothers made sport of the concept in Fargo. If I can be allowed a little whimsy, Shakespeare might have promoted his histories and tragedies with the claim that they are based on true events and gotten away with it very easily and without fear of dissembling, but would it have added value to anything? The initial impulse behind the “true story” gimmick in film advertising seems to me to have been based less on audience desire for some sort of verisimilitude than on the impulses that sold Confidential magazine back in the day: if you see this film, you will get the inside dope regarding especially grubby lives. This impulse seems at work in this film about the DC snipers, two black men, who shot as many as twenty-five people in 2002 – the older man, John Muhammad, was executed in 2009, the other Lee Malvo, was sentenced to life in prison. A genuine search for truth in the case itself is important, not only because of the ongoing explosion of violence in the US (with a corresponding fetishizing of killers, with little mass interest in correcting or even addressing the problems motivating this madness), but because of unaddressed poverty, much of it associated with ongoing de facto segregation.
The title Blue Caprice has an infuriating, affected resonance. It refers to the Chevrolet Caprice that the two men used as a sniper’s nest, but it suggests the capricious nature of violence – and fate, and human consciousness, with destiny being ineffable, out of our control, although some tangible social issues have to be at least acknowledged. The caprice of existence is accented in the film’s visual concept by desaturated color and a perpetually overcast sky, long since the emblem of the apocalypse, established at least by The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, continuing in television shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. We enter a world governed not so much by material phenomena as by the hopelessness of human action, and the immediate prospect of doomsday, a view more or less in keeping with the American far right.
Not that poverty and race are off the table, and at times Blue Caprice can be riveting and even significant. John (Isaiah Washington) and Lee (Tequan Richmond) are two men adrift, moving from the Caribbean to the west coast to Washington DC. They have been rejected by women, certainly an issue with John, whose irresponsibility – and malevolence – is well understood. Lee sees a mentor in John, following him without question. We have then the archetypal narrative, in deindustrialized, segregated America, of the older gunfighter and his young acolyte as the two men put together an arsenal of guns with the aid of a white arms dealer (Tim Blake Nelson) who relishes his knowledge and access. John brandishes his male professionalism, telling Lee about the right spots to make their kills, paying attention to small details, such as cutting out a gun port in the trunk of the Caprice.
The reasons for the murder rampage are kept obscure. Beyond the apocalyptic mise en scene, we have John’s ramblings, as when he and Lee buy food at a supermarket, John going on about how the system will crumble with a few violent acts – in his own crack-brained way he is articulating the ideology of early twentieth-century anarchists, who thought that indeed some acts of random urban insurrection would become a flashpoint for revolution, or at least kill some of the authority figures who for so long killed the working poor, a view rejected by much of the left. It is telling that as John fulminates, Lee steals two packages of veggie burgers, and is promptly caught by store security. John makes some fatherly pleas and the boy is released – in retrospect, the odd moment (veggie burgers?) makes good sense; Lee wants to be arrested rather than die with his mentor, or at least so it seems for a moment, one in which the fates are stacked against the boy. At the film’s end, all that Lee can do is ask authorities for his “father.”
The impervious nature of patriarchal authority and its wisdom are at the center of the film’s critique, although the argument remains a bit cloudy. One can see that the allegiance of the acolyte flows from real material need and some degree of emotional comfort. And there are allusions to poverty, since the settings that provide frameworks for the journey of the two men are filled with debris both personal (broken toys, filthy, decayed furniture) and general (the cityscapes that comprise deindustrialized America, with its strip malls and urban high rises emphasizing the reliance on the “service economy” and finance capital). Moors seems to feel that connecting the dots is condescending, a reasonable enough artistic impulse, but in so doing the film veers into obscurantism, offering us human experience as opaque.
At the time of the DC sniper killings, only one year after the events of September 11, 2001, the race-baiting surrounding the case was palpable; it became hyperbolic when the media term Muhammad a Muslim – he in fact belonged, for a time at least, to the Nation of Islam, the organization abandoned by Malcolm X for a variety of reasons, not least of which was his belief that its theology had nothing to do with Islam. Although the media corrected themselves, Internet chatter and everyday discourse that one could pick up on the street emphasized not only a vast conspiracy with Osama bin Laden in the lead, but an act of violence carried out by the traditional bogeyman threatening white society: the black race. Some right-wing media pundits pointed out that blacks never sufficiently grieved for the victims of 9/11, and the DC snipers were representative of black hatred of white culture and its values. Few paused to argue that even if we assume that Malvo and Muhammad were representative of anything at all, is it unreasonable, considering the history of genocide by whites against blacks, that some animosity might exist? If Moors is suggesting that Muhammad and Malvo were simply insane (making moot social questions), is there really a reason for this film to exist, considering the spate of mass murder films? Certainly Blue Caprice hints at a wider relevance, a need for some sort of understanding of these killings – but what?
There are some compelling aspects to Blue Caprice, but it is unfortunate that the film does not engage more forthrightly with racism and poverty in America – is there any reason, at this stage, for a progressive-minded filmmaker not to interrogate them, when the chosen subject matter cries out for such emphasis?
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is currently enjoying Mozart’s Requiem conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.