Review: Blue Caprice & A Teacher
For those living in and around Washington D.C. during the Aughts, the Beltway Sniper incident loomed large in the imagination of a populace still reeling from the recent September 11th attacks. Alexandre Moors’s Blue Caprice is about the two men responsible for the shootings (or, at least, his version of them). They are the meek that don’t wait to inherit the earth, and instead try to set it on fire.
John (Isaiah Washington) is a broad-chested alpha male, emanating a confidence that Lee (Tequan Richmond), an impoverished Caribbean boy who has been abandoned by his mother, can believe in. Lee is silent and watchful, a born sniper, curiously admiring John from afar. The two meet when John saves Lee from a suicide attempt, an act that seems staged to force John’s intervention. Moors’s camera observes from a distance too, peering through windows and past out-of-focus objects in the foreground that obscure part of the frame.
The gate to John’s house in the Caribbean has the whitewashed bars of a jail cell: these men live in an open-air prison, constructed out of anger at ongoing misfortunes, economic instability, alienation, and vague paranoia. When the impressionable Lee joins John in America as his “son” and sidekick, the boy searches his new surroundings for some warmth he might connect to. But earning John’s fatherly approval requires complete subservience and a bloodlust to match. The first time John has Lee kill for him, the camera remains fixed on his blank lockjaw expression, his dead eyes fixed on his victim. There is a quick cut to black as he fires and, a moment later, another close-up of his face, blood dotting his cheeks. Lee’s talent as a marksman is matched by his ability to keep his emotions at bay: he will begin to feel shame for his actions and, as that shame becomes the movie’s most compelling aspect, will slowly disappear along with narrative interest.
In what amounts to another stage in the training process, the pair shoot guns with John’s buddy, Ray (played by Tim Blake Nelson as a flea-bitten nobody). Lee takes aim at a bird’s nest carved in the shape of a cow, and after he successfully blasts away its head, the camera looks through the rifle’s scope along with him. Moors exploits this composition for a smash cut where the red dot of the scope turns into the crosshairs of a drone strike over Afghanistan, and a blinding white light fills up the screen.
Later, while Lee plays Doom, the Nineties video game and whipping boy in hundreds of think pieces about violence and youth, Ray explains the plot of The Matrix to him with a fanboy’s admiration, the flare of 16-bit gunfire providing a pointed cut-point to the flare of John grilling burgers. Is there a causal relationship between the violence in popular culture and military campaigns, between John’s megalomania and Lee’s compliance? Moors thinks at least one or two of these things probably link together. But an investigation of what that means for an audience member living outside of the contrivances of a thriller, or where and how pathology factors in, is rejected in favor of a closing scene where a social worker insists to Lee that these events have an undeniable meaning of their own.
Moors’s aesthetic is one of purposeful rigidity. The precious few facts of the character’s biographies are repeated again and again, short montages of billowing palm trees and suburban rooftops standing in for atmosphere; the wobbly framing and linear determinism skim the characters’ psychology, with the pretense of serious inquiry. Enthralled by Washington’s poised severity, Moors takes as his endgame the presentation of an evil beyond understanding, through music (most notably Arvo Pärt as the killers arrive in Maryland) and a sequence where shots of the blue Caprice roaming the expressway are intercut with victims lying in pools of blood on the pavement. Only two of the shootings are shown, and even then in fragments. This is death from some toxic ether of the millennial zeitgeist.
The title of Hannah Fidell’s debut feature, A Teacher, could easily fit Moors’s film. Blue Caprice is preoccupied first and foremost with Lee’s journey to lapdog obedience, showing the skills and tools required for their particular kind of killing. Similarly, A Teacher is concerned, to the exclusion of nearly all else, with watching its titular character and her attempts to find contentment in sexual abandon. And, like Blue Caprice, Fidell’s movie has a superficial interest in what surrounds or grounds its characters.
The two movies also share an inclination to shoot actors from behind, the anonymity of their necks, shoulders and the back of their heads possibly suggestive of their despondency or their relationship to the space around them. What’s known is that Diana (Lindsay Burdge), an intense beauty of a high school English teacher, is sleeping with one of her students, Eric (Will Brittain).
What isn’t known is how exactly the affair began. Does the couple ever have conversations that last more than a few minutes, or is it just sex followed by snuggling and slow pans of Texas sunsets? Why has Diana moved far from her family back East and why has she stopped speaking to them? Is she a good teacher or simply mediocre? Has she created or attempted to create any kind of social life during the four years she’s been living in Texas? Has she spent any evenings not clicking through a teenager’s Facebook photos or nervously checking her phone?
In place of answers to these questions, or even ambiguous nods in the direction of answers, Fidell has repeated scenes of Diana jogging in the street towards the backward-tracking camera, and 11 fade-to-black ellipses over 74 minutes. But there are hints that their affair is an attempt to recapture the passion and sense of discovery of youth, the lust for all things that comes with it. After having sex in the backseat of her car, Diana tells Eric how, when she was a teenager, she would do just the same back then, and in a later scene suggests “we should just keep driving . . . never go back.” This is also the closest Fidell comes to establishing a theme.
Twice, Fidell shows us Diana’s schoolgirl daydreams of Eric, medium close-ups of the Tiger Beat-worthy stud eyeing her longingly. This full-on subjectivity fails to convince as lovestruck visions in a movie that is otherwise balanced between distant observational camerawork and sound design that flicks the viewer in the ear with its sensibility of vague, rising unease. However misplaced Diana’s fantasies might be, or cheesy their representation is, the ending makes clear that she is now trapped inside them.