It was October 2002, in the yearlong wake after the September 11th attacks and anthrax being mailed to reporters and congressmen that an unprecedented wave of paranoia swelled in the country for all things Muslim. Then The Beltway Snipers happened. John Allen Muhammad, with a young protégé named Lee Boyd Malvo killed or injured over 20 people across the country with sniper attacks on seemingly random victims, culminating in a month long reign of terror in the Washington D.C. area that dominated the national news for weeks.
Blue Caprice, the new film based (somewhat loosely) on those events, embellishes the black-and-white urge to judge, one that is so deserved for monstrous men.
We meet John Allen (Isaiah Washington, Grey's Anatomy) and Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond, Ray) as they meet in a Caribbean paradise. Allen, divorced for the second time, has kidnapped his three small children to the island of Antigua. A friend of Malvo's mother, who emigrated to the U.S. to await her son, Allen rescues Lee from apparent drowning and essentially adopts him as his own.
When they return to the U.S., instead of reuniting with Lee's mother, they take residence in Tacoma with a backwoods friend of Allen's named Ray (Tim Blake Nelson, Lincoln) who has all kinds of heavy weaponry that he likes to blow off steam with (since he can't hit much else). With Ray's Bushmaster in mind, Allen, whose anger over the restraining order his wife has on him -- separating him from his kids -- hatches a plan to kill her and take back his children.
He begins training Lee in sniper tactics and marksmanship, and after buying an old Chevy Caprice with the money stolen from a bar owner whom Lee shoots in his second act murder, they set out across the country to start arbitrarily executing people with the goal of making their real target, Allen's ex, seem like a random victim of a larger killing spree. The rest is history. Malvo still sits in prison while Allen died by lethal injection in 2009.
This has been a great year for feature film debuts, particularly after Fruitvale Station. Director Alexandre Moors, from a script by Ronnie Porto, has made a deeply haunting film with Blue Caprice. It doesn't play like some exploitive crime drama at all, and it avoids overly humanizing its antagonists (and even their victims), while putting their unforgivable motivations into a context, striking a delicate balancing act to give their actions meaning without justifying or glamorizing them.
It doesn't start out so hopefully, with an opening credit montage of the news footage from the height of the panic, which initially reeks of sensationalist exposé. But Blue Caprice is ultimately about the subtleties of its characters, putting you in their world and discovering the horror in their banality. As the film's narrative dreamily plays out, we see them for what they are: an impressionable teenager yearning for a father, and a badly-wired father-figure who is a sociopath in victim's clothing.
Always Be A Good Boy, Don't Ever Play With Guns. Tequan Richmond rots in jail as the Malvo boy in Blue Caprice, about the Beltway sniper attacks.
The distancing tone Moors takes with the material neutralizes the romanticism, balancing a fugue-like atmosphere with a deftly immediate story that makes Blue Caprice like an elegant iteration of Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer. There's no redemption or rationalization for these people, but that doesn't mean we can't live in their world. We do already.
Washington turns in a creepy and totally charismatic performance as John Allen. The way he effortlessly manipulates Lee and lives in blameless denial of everything he does is chilling, particularly because Washington almost disappears into the role, slowly doling out the fractured hints of Allen's unstable mind. That's perfectly mirrored by Richmond's performance as Lee, so internalized as to seem inert. Richmond fills the character with quiet details that speak volumes to his trusting motivations.
Tim Blake Nelson adds a much needed sheen of levity as Ray, a good old boy gun-nut stoner. But being Nelson, he's permeated with tangible layers. Sure, he gets baked and tries to explain the plot of The Matrix to Lee with all its mind-blowing implications, man, but it's his interactions with his wife, Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams, Chasing Amy) that reveal the subtle details that imbue both side characters with the necessary depth -- they're sick of each other -- and making them that much more memorable.
It's beautifully made cinema, unforced and enigmatic and something you won't shake off immediately. The minimalistic script and Moors' confident direction leave little to be desired (though Leo Fitzpatricks's pissed off Neo-Nazi kind of took me out of the movie for a minute, breaking the otherwise nearly hypnotic tone). Framed in the textured, vibrant compositions of cinematographer Brian O'Carroll (also in his feature debut) and a tense, sonorous, perfectly jarring soundtrack, there really isn't much about Blue Caprice that isn't firing on all cylinders.
Short Term 12
Short Term 12 is a small movie and not just in the indie landscape sense. Blue Caprice is almost as small in that regard; it's just about a more widely considered subject. You have to wonder how many people really think that much about the travails of foster kids, aside from their foster parents or would be adopters. In a country inundated with economic disparity and rapidly turning back to Victorian Age ideas of social insurance, the massive problem of raising and educating the underprivileged young has taken a back seat to budget-slashing politicians who would rather give our collective money to wealthy agribusinesses than fund food stamps to feed the hungry or Head Start programs to educate the poor. The phrase "It takes a village," always bugged me because we aren't villagers. Our problems aren't that simple. It takes a society. We crafted a vast, complex civilization in America and something we all still realize, even when it's clouded by politics, is that a society is meant to care for the least of its citizens -- from the cradle to the grave.
This is why Short Term 12 is such a warm and wonderful microcosm. While never really addressing those larger issues, Short Term 12 instead opts to explore the small human moments of its well-crafted characters in the light of their own inherent decency -- which is an apt way to get one thinking about the bigger picture.
Why Can't Good Things Happen To People In Movies? Grace and Marcus share a moment at a foster-care facility in Short Term 12.
Mason (John Gallagher Jr., The Newsroom) and Grace (Brie Larson, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) are two, 20-something counselors, and a 3-year old couple, who work at a foster-care facility for teenagers who haven't found homes. Their charges range from the slightly delinquent Luis (Kevin Hernandez, Get the Gringo) to the socially struggling Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about to be ejected from the group home due to turning 18. Mason feels a particularly sympathetic connection to the smart and introverted Marcus.
Grace finds a similar connection when she meets Jayden (Kaitlyn Denver, The Spectacular Now), whose father has decided to house her at the facility so he can essentially ignore her. While the other kids are forbidden to leave, Jayden, an entitled rebel, has what amounts to a weekend pass -- as well as a huge chip on her shoulder. Grace can identify with her daddy issues in ways that even Mason doesn't realize.
That comes to a head when Grace learns she's pregnant, and her past threatens to corrupt the healthiest relationship with a man that she's never known.
Written and directed by Destin Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster), Short Term 12 is an effortlessly executed example of life as we know it to be, even if we never lived in those particular shoes. From the opening scene, where Mason regales the new guy on the job, Nate (Rami Malek, Twilight) about the hazards of dealing with an AWOL charge when you're about to shit your pants, to the emotional moments where Jayden and Grace realize they have as much in common as they have trauma to heal from, Short Term 12 strikes a magical balance between humor and drama, never letting the tone get away from the reality of the characters or the lives they live. It's rare that a film like this finds such an organic balance and it reminded me of how It's Kind of a Funny Story got that so wrong, as if being institutionalized is a vacation for misfits. These kids all want out, they're all scared and they're all damaged, but they also find solace in being together. None of them are quirky, feel-good caricatures.
Larson and Gallagher are wonderfully cast and deliver charming, heartfelt performances, while sharing a naturalistic chemistry that you can't make up. As Jayden, Kaitlyn Denver fits the part of bitchy, spoiled teenaged outsider, while never overplaying it.
Cretton's skill with the story (expanded from his short film on which this is based), the characters he clearly loves and the performances he elicits from his cast to match his nearly impeccable writing, make Short Term 12 an oddly perfect movie.
Short Term 12 opens at the Circle Cinema on October 4.
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