The Laramie Project

Christina-in-The-Laramie-Project-christina-ricci-17722501-853-480How to forge art from tragedy? One way is to forget art and let tragedy speak for itself. In The Laramie Project, an Off-Broadway play and now one of the many Original Movies that have made HBO a dramatic force, the playwright Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project did just that. Kaufman and his interviewers journeyed to Laramie, Wyoming, in the wake of the vicious murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, beaten and left for dead by two homophobes who’d hoped to “scare him straight” — teach him a “lesson” about hitting on God-fearing men. The goal of the project was to collect the townspeople’s thoughts and memories, which often conflicted and painted a portrait of Anywhere, USA.

The result is a fascinating chorus of outrage and sadness, hatred and hope; pretty much every voice we hear is authentic, taken from actual interviews. The form isn’t quite simulated documentary — it’s closer to what the playwright Anna Deavere Smith does when she takes disparate viewpoints of an event (the L.A. riots, etc.) and turns them into a performance piece. Whereas Smith plays all the roles herself, though, The Laramie Project recruits actors to stand in for the real-life interview subjects. As captured on film now, it is — in addition to its other qualities — a feast for fans of indie actors: Steve Buscemi, Christina Ricci, Janeane Garofalo, Laura Linney, and Amy Madigan are only a fraction of the surprising talent here.

Kaufman (played here by Nestor Carbonelli) and his crew of New York theater interlocutors step tentatively into Laramie, encountering some resistance, some cooperation, and a lot of shame. “Hate is not a Laramie value,” announces a red-lettered sign on the town’s main strip. Many of the people want to put the Shepard case behind them and go back to a time when the name of their home was not synonymous with “hate crime.” A frequent refrain is that the town motto is “Live and let live,” but others in Laramie might amend that to “Live and let live, as long as you’re heterosexual or closeted.”

The work is built on great voices, not necessarily enlightened ones: Laura Linney plays a housewife who can’t understand why a big fuss was made over Matthew’s death when people are murdered every day (apparently nobody told her that people tend not to be murdered just because they’re heterosexual); James Murtaugh embodies the notorious, grotesque Rev. Fred Phelps, who attends the funerals of gay people and waves placards like FAGS BURN IN HELL. This isn’t a religion-bashing project, though: Father Roger Schmit (Tom Bower) speaks movingly for an end to homophobic violence and wishes that the murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, could become society’s “teachers” — he wants to learn where simple distaste or disapproval crosses the line into homicide.

Like HBO’s other prestigious gay-interest movie And the Band Played On, this one has attracted a slew of high-powered talent — Christina Ricci contributes a well-drawn, atypically ungloomy performance as a self-described “little lesbian”; Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek scores big as the good-hearted bartender who was one of the last to see Matthew alive; Amy Madigan is tough and vulnerable all at once as the police officer first called to the scene; Clancy Brown, usually stuck in bad-guy roles (stomping prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption, for instance), shows a softer side as a cop quietly appalled at the notion of gay-bashing.

But the heart of the movie belongs to one of its least-known actors in a bare minimum of screen time — Terry Kinney, a veteran of the network’s prison drama Oz, stands up in court near the end as Matthew’s grieving father. Dennis Shepard’s speech in tribute to his son (“my hero”) and in excoriation of the killers — and his argument for not giving his son’s murderers the death penalty, even though he believes in capital punishment and would like to watch them die — is astonishing in its uncalculated simplicity; by the time he gets to the part about how Matthew didn’t die alone — the sights and sounds of his beloved town were with him — the words become poetry, and Kinney brings it home without fuss or grandstanding. It’s moments like these — and many lesser, though scarcely less moving, sequences — that demonstrate how voices can be collected into art.

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