Blue Caprice: Sundance Review

Blue Caprice

U.S.A. (Director: Alexandre Moors, Screenwriters: R.F.I Porto, Alexandre Moors)

An abandoned boy is lured to America and drawn into the shadow of a dangerous father figure in this film inspired by the real life events that led to the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Cast: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Joey Lauren Adams, Tim Blake Nelson, Cassandra Freeman, Leo Fitzpatrick.

A riveting first feature of startling maturity and intelligence.

Alexandre Moors' timely DC sniper thriller is driven by the intense, mesmerizing performances of Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond.

PARK CITY --  Among the lead candidates to be this year’s breakout title from the Next section at Sundance is Blue Caprice, a disturbing, masterfully controlled thriller based on the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Renewed national discussion of mass shootings and gun control stands to heighten the impact of director Alexandre Moors’ head-turning debut, which is driven by performances of brooding intensity from Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond.

Following a grainy montage of news and surveillance video accompanied by traumatized 911 calls reporting shootings in the D.C. area, the story opens amid the lush island vegetation of Antigua in the Caribbean. A teenage boy, Lee (Richmond), watches in mute fury as his mother leaves their home to take work elsewhere, saying she’ll be back for him. But as her absence stretches on, Lee grows bored, frustrated and then desperate, seemingly attempting to drown himself in the rough surf.

PHOTOS: Sundance 2013: The Scene in Park City

He is rescued and taken in by John (Washington), a visiting American whose three young daughters have been removed from their country in violation of a custody agreement. With no word from Lee’s mother, John eventually takes him back to Tacoma, Wash.

From early in their relationship, John begins drilling his life-is-unfair views into Lee, whose absence of a father figure renders him highly susceptible to the older man’s influence. The bottomless pit of John’s anger becomes steadily more apparent back in the U.S., as he takes Lee on a tour of the middle-class suburban neighborhood of his former life. He talks of the evil that lives there, the ghosts left behind, and the vampires like his ex-wife, who sucked him dry. Since their return from Antigua, she has taken out a restraining order against him and removed their children to parts unknown. This gnaws at him like a cancer.

When Lee is taken along with John and his Army buddy Ray (Tim Blake Nelson) to let off steam with some target practice in the woods, he reveals himself to be a natural with a gun. Watching the boy’s face the first time a semi-automatic “widow-maker” is placed in his hands is especially disquieting in light of recent events. After John’s erratic behavior gets them kicked out by his girlfriend (Cassandra Freeman), they end up staying with Ray and his equally trashy partner Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams), providing access to Ray’s arsenal of firearms.

Some of the film’s most powerful scenes are brutal interludes in which John subjects his young protege to various tests, leaving him tied to a tree overnight in the woods or forcing him to fight in a systematic campaign to harden the boy and break his moral resistance.

Demanding proof of Lee’s love and gratitude, John instructs him to shoot a woman who testified against him during the divorce proceedings. That initiation kick-starts the escalating chain of violence that leads them to the D.C. area, where John has traced his estranged family.

The sense of how vulnerable young people can be blindly infected with the seething rage and violence of their trusted elders is conveyed with chilling efficiency in R.F.I. Porto’s pared-down screenplay. Perhaps even more unsettling, however, is the way Lee becomes not just a follower but an instigator, with each of them driving the other. “I’ve created a monster,” says John at one point, proudly patting his surrogate son on the head.

PHOTOS: Sundance's Greatest Hits: The Movies That Broke Through

In a tightly wound performance from Washington of mesmerizing authority and conviction, John drills his dogma into Lee, casually at first, then with increasing forcefulness. His rants become more grandiose as he condemns all of society, calling it a house of cards waiting to be toppled.

With assured economy, Porto and Moors build psychological profiles that very feasibly could be those of the real Beltway murderers, John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, who indiscriminately killed 10 people and wounded three others over a three-week period. And while underplaying the actual gun violence onscreen, the filmmakers provide fascinating physical detail about the murderous spree.

From the moment John purchases the Chevrolet Caprice that gives the film its title, the auto becomes a third principal character. A hulking gas-guzzler that looks like the homicide squad car from some vintage cop show, the vehicle acquires a sinister presence, especially once John and Lee finish customizing it.

They hollow out the area behind the back seat to accommodate a shooter, and carve a gun-barrel opening in the trunk. It might be blue, but the car starts to look distinctly like gunmetal gray as it travels across the country. Moors shows an actual shooting being carried out from the car only once, but the image resonates.

Showing refreshing faith in the audience’s ability to connect the dots, Moors employs frequent narrative ellipses and nonlinear editing to strong effect. The film expertly manipulates mood and atmosphere with a muscular sound design that juggles dense textures, uneasy silences, a suspenseful score by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld and striking classical music choices. Visually, too, the work is impressive, with cinematographer Brian O’Carroll’s nighttime shots of the Caprice cruising along the Beltway planting an ominous sense of dread.

In a taut 95 minutes, New York-based French director Moors conducts a riveting exploration of a very dark, ugly place in the American psyche. And in Richmond’s clenched performance, Lee becomes a distressing lab rat for that study.

Quiet and watchful, with what seems like only a dozen or so lines of dialogue in the entire movie, the damaged kid is broken down and remolded, starting with the eradication of his West Indies speech patterns. In the interview with a prison psych evaluator that closes the film, he is transformed into a hollow shell of hate – cold, remorseless and showing loyalty only to his adoptive father.

The randomness of the Beltway killing spree shocked America a decade ago but recedes from the national memory with every new mass shooting. Revisiting that episode, the filmmakers have made a smart, sobering movie that speculates with compelling detachment on how the abhorrent urge to take innocent lives might evolve.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Cast: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams, Leo Fitzpatrick, Cassandra Freeman

Production company: SimonSays Entertainment, Stephen Tedeschi, Aiko Films, Intrinsic Value Films, in association with Coal House, High Def New York, Prolific Entertainment, Streetwise Pictures

Director: Alexandre Moors

Screenwriter: R.F.I. Porto; story by Alexandre Moors, R.F.I. Porto

Producers: Alexandre Moors, Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof, Ron Simons, Stephen Tedeschi, Brian O'Carroll, Kim Jackson, Will Rowbotham

Executive producers: Hilary Stabb, Jonathan Gray, Isaiah Washington, Charles Parlato

Director of photography: Brian O’Carroll

Production designer: Kay Lee

Music: Colin Stetson, Sarah Neufeld

Costume designers: Minori Kuraoka Moors, Eniola Dawodu

Editors: Alexandre Moors, Gordon Grinberg

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 95 minutes.