In February 2002, in the initial uneasy period after 9/11, a series of murders was to begin that would stretch across the United States from Washington to Alabama before eventually in September leading up to the Interstate 495 or the ‘Capital Beltway’. The rampage was being conducted by a pair of snipers driving around D.C., Maryland and Virginia and was to become one of the worst spree killings in modern American history.
The perpetrator was originally reported as presumed to be a Caucasian in a white van, but was eventually identified as John Allen Muhammad and his 17-year-old protégé Lee Boyd Malvo – two African Americans driving a 1990 Blue Caprice. Alexandre Moors’ new film is based on their father-son relationship and how they came to conduct such an explosion of violence.
The narrative begins with Lee (Tequan Richmond) being abandoned by his mother and having to fend for himself before eventually meeting John (Isaiah Washington), himself desperately trying to regain contact with his own children. This symmetrical emptiness brings them to form a quick bond as John takes him in and teaches him to drive, shoot and steal.
John’s disdain for society due to the separation from his wife and children leads him to begin to fight Lee and encourage him to become violent in order to get revenge on a society that has failed them both.
Moors’s patient direction and editing along with Brian O’Caroll’s gorgeous cinematography give them film a harrowing pace that is building to an inevitable climax. Even though the narrative is inescapable (if you know the true story), the film takes it’s time to get there and substitutes any gratuitous violence for more of the character development.
Lee’s story is a tragic reflection of the many young American men drawn to violence. An early scene as he waits a shopping mall shows a number of army recruiters attempting to get him to join up – an ironic foreshadowing of what would eventually happen to him. In a country full of guns, it feels that his vocation is unavoidable.
As disturbing as the subject matter is, the film is a beautiful evil and tries to understand the context of the notorious rampage and fit it into a post-9/11 narrative. A 2003 made-for-TV movie was quick to exploit and sensationalise the tragedy, as opposed to the more sober reflection from Moors who has used it to explore greater themes of masculinity, ethnicity and violence: An American buddy-movie at it’s most terrifying and powerful.