Laramie Project, The

Sundance Film Festival, Park City–Though well intentioned and dealing with the socially relevant issues of hate crimes and gay-bashing, Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project, is a disappointing film from an artistic standpoint. Developed (at the Sundance Institute) and performed all over the U.S. as a theater piece, the screenplay (also developed at Sundance) is neither satisfying as a play-to-film transfer nor particularly rewarding as a uniquely filmic work. In reconstructing the highly publicized brutal abuse of Matthew Shepard in the small town of Wyoming's Laramie, novice director Kaufman has made a number of strategic mistakes, the most prominent of which is populating his docu drama with a name cast, including Peter Fonda, Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, and Steve Buscemi, that's distracting, calling attention to itself rather than to the real-life characters they play and the horrifying story they tell.

World premiere, as opening night of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, was greeted with mixed response, which is likely to repeat when HBO airs the show in the spring. That said, broad telecast, following showings at the Berlin Film Festival, would at least expose the problem to large audiences that have not seen the play and hopefully raise topics that have become even timelier in the post-September 11 consciousness. Additionally, it may be a good idea to present the film as a wake-up call in various educational institutions (high-schools, colleges) as a point of departure for informed discussions about the mistreatment and intolerance of minorities in American society.

As a play, The Laramie Project opened in Denver in February 2000 and moved to New York in May, soon becoming of the country's most performed plays. In November of that year, Kaufman took his company and play to Laramie. Kaufman, who previously wrote the fascinating drama Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, has adapted his highly-acclaimed Off-Broadway play to the screen, based on hundreds of interviews he and members of the Tectonic Theater Project had conducted in Laramie over a two-year period in the wake of Shepard's 1998 murder.

The goal of the film, which is substantially shorter and ultimately less touching than the stage production, was to dramatize the impact of the murder on the residents of a whole community. However, though using for the most part actual words from the transcripts, The Laramie Project is only partially successful in recreating a portrait of a seemingly quiet and “normal” town that suddenly found itself at the center of the national spotlight (President Bill Clinton addressed the issue, among others), forced to confront its own demons in the aftermath of one of the most tragic events in modern American history.

Debatable as it is, Kaufman's strategy was to tell the story of the town of Laramie, as opposed to telling the story of Shepard. And indeed, defying expectations and contrary to conventions, there's no reenactment of the night of the murder, or events leading to it. Through bits and pieces of interviews, intercut with actual news footage and media reports, a picture of the case emerges. Reportedly, two local hoodlums, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, had met Shepard in a local bar, when he asked them for a ride. It's uncertain whether or not Shepard, a slender, openly gay youngster, had made sexual overtures, as the convicts claimed.

What's abundantly clear is the brutal beating and pistol- whipping of Shepard, who was tied to a fence while shoeless and bleeding. Left there, in a cold October night, for at least 18 hours, he was later discovered by a biker who called the police. Suffering from a severe head injury, Shepard went into coma, never regaining consciousness; he died three days later in the hospital. The drama gains urgency from the around-the-clock reportage, of both the doctor and politicians, of Shepard's conditions while in the hospital.

Fearing of letting scenes take their time and play to their logical conclusion, Kaufman and his editor have opted for a mosaic approach, in which various characters recall their connection to and knowledge of Shepard before his death, and, especially, what was the effect of this hateful crime on their daily lives. Hence, Peter Fonda plays Dr. Donald Cantway, a kind physician at the hospital, who took care of Shepard, and an excellent Amy Madigan embodies Reggie Fluty, the first police officer to arrive at the scene of the crime. In a couple of touching episodes, Reggie and her mother (Frances Sternhagen) reconstruct their fear of Reggie's contracting AIDS due to her physical contact with the bleeding victim.

Other “typical” residents of this supposedly all-American town include Catherine Connolly (a wonderful Garofalo), who brings some humor to the proceeding by sharing her experience of what it meant being the first all-out lesbian professor, Jeremey Davis as a university drama student, and Steve Buscemi, as a casual and chatty taxicab driver who knew Shepard. More personal accounts come from Romaine Patterson (Christina Ricci), Shepard's close friend and confidante, who later orchestrated candlelight vigils, protests, and funeral, in which the participants were dressed as angels, an image that evokes Tony Kushner's seminal play, Angels in America, which was later produced in Laramie.

Less effective and truthful portrayals include a long monologue addressed at the camera by Laura Linney as a conservative housewife, and various characters in the pub. Last reel, which is structured as a courtroom drama, is also uneven. Denis Shepard (Terry Kinney), the victim's devastated and grieving father, gives an emotional speech, a truly cri de coeur, and crime perpetrator Mckinney (Mark Weber) also gets a chance to present his plea.

Intent of trying to reconstruct a post-trauma life in a typical small-American town is undeniably ambitious. And though there are over 50 speaking parts, The Laramie Project feels like a Greek tragedy in which the leading role is not played by an individual character but by a chorus, composed of various mouthpieces, each representing a different ideology and point of view. Too concerned with showing a balanced view, the film comes across as lacking dramatic focus.

What's also missing from the picture is a consideration of the broader social context. There are at least 25 anti-gay homicides reported every day (which means that at least twice as many cases are not reported). Yet, for some reason, the Shepard case was not only widely covered by the media, but one that continues to resonate years after the event took place.

It would have been a better, more personal and self-reflexive film, if the viewers got a sense of what was the impact of the first-hand info (through the interviews) that the troupe's members collected on their own values system. What did they learn from the experience Did it have a significant change on their feelings, relationships, self-perception as actors. Instead, what viewers get is brief vignettes, in which some of the actors address the camera and talk about technical issues, such as gaining access to–and trust of–the residents.

Neither realistically factual as a docu drama, nor emotionally effective as a fictional account, The Laramie Project falls in between these two genres, carrying itself mostly through its unmistakably heart-wrenching subject matter. Considering the dramatic possibilities inherent in the material, the film represents a missed opportunity on several levels.

With: Steve Buscemi, Kathleen Chalfant, Jeremy Davies, Clea Duvall, Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Irwin, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim, Christina Ricci, Frances Sternhagen, Mark Webber