Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Laramie Project (2002)

Original movies produced by and for HBO are, generally speaking, fine quality productions these days -- often to the point that they could be theatrical films. Generally, they have a degree of importance to them. Often they are about real people or real events.  The Laramie Project has all of these qualities.

Writer-director Moises Kaufman created a play made up of the actual words spoken by actual Laramie, Wyoming residents following the brutal murder of young gay Matthew Shepard by two Laramie residents. Kaufman then adapted his play into this affecting telefilm. The result is a glimpse of a town thrust into the national spotlight in the aftermath of Shepard's tragic murder.

Kaufman populates his film with many acclaimed character actors, all with relatively small roles. The cast includes Christina Ricci, Margo Martindale, Dylan Baker, Frances Sternhagen, Janeane Garofalo, Amy Madigan,  Ben Foster, Laura Linney, Camryn Manheim, Peter Fonda, Jeremy Davies, Steve Buscemi, Joshua Jackson, Lois Smith, Clancy Brown, Bill Irwin, and Tom Bower, among others. The most moving was Terry Kinney as Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, who gives an eloquent speech at the sentencing hearing of one of the murderers.

The film is so well-constructed and well-edited with different threads of the fabric of Laramie that I didn't notice its dramatic holes until after the film was over. It seems to me that the filmmakers want to indict the people of Laramie, to hold them responsible in part for the culture that led to Shepard's horrific beating and murder.  I don't want to lessen the cruelty of the crimes against Shepard, but the crime could have happened in New York City just as easily as it did in Wyoming (and in my opinion, justice may not have been so sufficiently served in a more liberal state.) The people of Laramie were outraged, shocked, dismayed, and horrified by what happened to Shepard, no less than people anywhere else in the country would have been had it occurred in their back yards.  I don't mind movies that stack the cards to illustrate their points of view so much as I get bothered by the constant attitude that good, moral people who believe that the homosexual lifestyle is wrong are complete idiots. Most people that I know who have this attitude are tolerant and respectful of gays -- they would just prefer to not have gay culture in their faces all the time. I'm sure that if a television drama actually tried to be sympathetic to such Americans that a publicity nightmare would ensue. My point is that the savage beating of Shepard in Laramie is no more or less abhorrent than gay-bashing anywhere. But the majority of people who oppose special rights for homosexuals are not gay-bashers and in fact are just as repulsed by such behavior as people supportive of gay causes.  The Laramie Project does not make this distinction.

Ultimately, The Laramie Project is a consistently fascinating, complex, important piece of filmmaking that errs by villanizing  the people of a good city in a good state when the only villains here were the two perpetrators of the murder of Shepard.  For that reason, I have to give The Laramie Project a B+.

I watched The Laramie Project on DVD on May 17, 2014.

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