Film Review: “Blue Caprice”

The evil twin of Fruitvale Station, Blue Caprice joins that film to rebuke Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which for three weeks topped the boxoffice. A movie that begins with lynchings, a rape, a murder, and Vanessa Redgrave solemnly promising to transform the title character into a “house nigger” ends sentimentally uptempo with Obama in the White House and a snappy closing line, “I know the way!” Minus dubious all-star trappings and the mix of shocks, melodrama, and homilies that made The Butler and Daniels’ Precious hits, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice, both truer (if not entirely beholden) to the facts of their true stories, find scorched earth in our “post-racial society.”

There are similarities between the two. From first-time filmmakers, both downplay sensationalism for a more documentary approach. There are no speeches or earnest appeals, no teachable moments. Terrible things happen. The overwhelming emotion is an understated sorrow–in Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, for the senseless taking of a young black man’s life, in Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice, for a young black man who senselessly takes lives.

Both concern paternal bonds. The lighter moments in Fruitvale Station come from a father trying, not always successfully, to raise his daughter, and a ray of hope comes from her remembering his legacy when his life is cut short. There are no lighter moments in Blue Caprice, as a father surrogate latches onto a lost boy and molds him in his own psychopathic image. In Fruitvale Station, we see how the anonymity of our underclass and the weight of our institutions crush spirits and lives. In Blue Caprice, that invisibility fuels a killing spree meant to undermine the status quo.

After a prologue steeped in the chaos of the Beltway sniper attacks of October 2002, Blue Caprice tracks back to the Caribbean island of Antigua, where life is far from idyllic for Lee (Tequan Richmond). Neglected by his mother, the teenager lives on the fringes, where he meets an older American, John (Isaiah Washington). John, whose hated ex-wife lives with their three children and has a restraining order out against him, takes a fatherly interest in Lee, and helps him with his English. He decides to return to the U.S., where Lee will be introduced as his son. I liked this exchange between the two in R.F. I. Porto’s screenplay, so terse that I can’t recall the two addressing each other as “John” and “Lee”:

Lee: There are two Washingtons on this map.

John: One is the Capitol. The other no one cares about.

Lee: Which do you come from?

John: The one no one cares about.

Soon the two are in Tacoma, where no one cares about them. John drifts into the life of an old Army buddy, Ray (Tim Blake Nelson), whose wife, Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams), has some qualms about their houseguests, though not enough not to take John into her bed (one of several implied actions in the film). Ray is closer to his guns than he is to Jamie, and John is fascinated when Lee proves proficient with weapons when the three go target shooting. He’s found in Lee the perfect vessel in which to pour his crackpot, Matrix-inspired theories about apocalypse (which he shares with Lee, incongruously, and chillingly, in a supermarket, sizing up potential victims) and goads his ward into homicide. Lee is upset by what he has done–particularly when he learns that John, like Ray a member of the Army motor pool, has never killed anyone himself–but has nowhere to turn, as John alternates between sticks (abandoning him in the forest to toughen him up) and carrots (teaching him to drive the blue Caprice Classic of the title) to spur him to a further murder. To enact John’s increasingly grandiose scenarios–taking kids like Lee to Canada to train them for Armageddon is but one–they drive cross country, where John’s ex-wife lives, to pursue their infamy.

Moors’ film (not the first on the subject, after several TV documentaries and a misbegotten straight-to-video account, D.C. Sniper), is, like Fruitvale Station, admirably restrained given a hot-button subject, and lacking in sensationalism. It’s also arty in places and, to be fair, a bit dry; I had the same issue with Fruitvale Station, which could have been angrier. But these are the films these directors have chosen to make, narrow and focused, and stubbornly resistant to middlebrow hand-holding and self-congratulation. Blue Caprice, which premieres on VOD Sept. 17,  is full of signifiers–our gun culture, video game violence, the flag-waving run up to the Iraq War. These remain at the periphery, for us to make of them what we will. At the center are John and Lee, played with minimum fuss and as much clarity as circumstances will allow by Washington, the volatile one-time star of Grey’s Anatomy, and Richmond, grown up from his Everybody Hates Chris days. Knotted up in love, delusion, and hatred, they give the film its force. Strong and unnerving as it depicts a dead zone of economic marginalization and spiritual corruption, Blue Caprice potently reminds us that, no, we don’t know the way.