Layers of Darkness

It is a curious thing what people remember and what they forget, either by choice or by the mysterious alchemy by which culture, media, and personal and social factors determine the rank of our memories. At the time when two men — an embittered, hostile and paranoid 42-year-old veteran named John Allen Muhammad and his protégé, an unloved and untethered teenager named Lee Malvo — went on a prolonged killing spree in the Washington, D.C. area, it dominated the news for weeks and left the nation’s capitol paralyzed with terror.  Now, almost fifteen years later, with Muhammad dead by the hand of the state and Malvo imprisoned and ignored, the spree that left nearly 20 people randomly murdered is almost forgotten.

There is no telling what concatenation of circumstances is responsible for this, any more than we can know why we so vividly recall the crimes of the Zodiac Killer but not those of the far more prolific, political, and utterly random Zebra Killers. Part of it had to do with the “Beltwaty Sniper” attacks coming so soon after 9/11; we were so uncertain then, and until Muhammad and Malvo were captured after a coincidence as unpredictable as their crimes, we did not know if the series of unrelated shootings, with death seeming to light on the victims like a hawk hunting, were part of an orchestrated campaign of foreign terror.  The banality of the truth, the pitiable state of Malvo, and the way the killings were committed for even less comprehensible reasons, may have helped us forget.  But there will always be those for whom there simply has to be some meaning behind a great crime.

Judging from many of the reviews of Blue Caprice, the independent film abut Muhammad and Malvo made a decade after the murders, many of those people are film critics.  Blue Caprice, directed by French video veteran Alexandre Moors, takes a very European, very art-film approach to the story, which is neither true-crime pseudo-documentary nor exploitative trash.  His is a film of silences and voids:  Malvo (the striking Tequan Richmond) barely speaks, perhaps because he has nothing to say or perhaps because no one will listen to him.  His life is full of emptiness; his mother has abandoned him to work, and his father is an unknown.  He has no siblings or family.  He doesn’t go to school and has no work, no passions, not even hobbies.  If he has an inner life, we are not made privy to it.

Nature abhorring a vacuum as it does, into that void steps John Muhammad, a man whose forceful personality and outward demeanor of calm but cruel discipline masks a huge rage at the system he believes has conspired against him.  Muhammad is a familiar type, a figure we have come to know all too well in recent years:  he decorates himself with dressing like an adherence to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, a devotion to military rigor, and some vaguely political ideas, but he is really just a free-floating cloud of hostility and resentment, a man who cannot find fulfillment and who is troubled by more than a hint of madness.  He is animated by little more than bitterness and anger, which he directs at the government, society, white people, and (of course) women.  But he has a way with children, a certain flinty kindness, and the ability to make people feel like they are important, and that’s catnip for a lonely and directionless boy like Malvo.

The film makes very much of this tense, and largely unknowable, relationship between the two, and very little of the actual crimes themselves, which usually are depicted in an off-key manner — not because Moors believes they are incidental to the story of Muhammad and Malvo, but perhaps because he fears there is no way to depict them that will add anything to the story that we don’t already know.   A number of critics attacked the film for just this quality:  Moors’ film explains nohing; at the abrupt end, we are left knowing as little about Muhammad’s true motivations and the extent of his influence, if indeed he had any, over Malvo as we did at the beginning.  Fiction, unlike history, has the power to tell us everything about a story, so why does Blue Caprice so resolutely fail to do so?

I believe this is because Moors is not convinced there is any reason, or at least not one that can be made clear, to crimes like this.  He shares this quality with Gus Van Sant, whose Elephant I found to be a brilliant film on its own, but also a masterful evocation of our unquenchable thirst to know why these things happen.  Elephant threw dozens of shallow ‘explanations’ of a mass school shooting at us, from violent video games to bullying to repressed homosexuality.  But in the end, it mocked our desperation to know:  why did they do this terrible thing?  Van Sant considers this a question of metaphysics, of very limited value even to ask and largely impossible to answer.  I agree with this in most cases, and so, it would appear, does Moors:  since Muhammad and Malvo obviously believed that the relationship between them was the most important thing about them, why shouldn’t we take them at their word?

The answer is because while fiction has the ability to tell the whole truth, it can only do so when that whole truth is known.  We can never know fully why Muhammad chose Malvo to pull the trigger on 17 people, or why Malvo agreed, and the more Moors does so (and he does, filling in some details with speculation), the further we get from the truth.  Malvo, now older and as full of wonder at his crimes as we are, says the same:  no longer a defiant boy but a forsaken man, he shakes his head at his past for having “no rhyme or reason or sense”, offering no solution beyond the fact that his actions were the work of someone whose soul was buried under “layers and layers of darkness”. If we cannot explain so great a crime, some people seem to believe, then perhaps we should not remember it at all, especially through the lens of fiction.  But these shallow explanations are neither a magic spell that clarifies the past nor a mystical guard that prevents such events from happening again.  We do their victims no favors by refusing to allow them the humanizing touch of art.

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