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.
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.