Movie Reviews

Pride Month Movie Review: The Laramie Project – Every Town, USA

Written by Moises Kaufman, Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich
Directed by Moises Kaufman

Few crimes were more riveting or polarizing in the late 1990s than the Matthew Shepard murder.  While the hideous nature of the crime was focused on for so long, something was lost along the way.  The city of Laramie, Wyoming seemed to become the icon for intolerance based on one’s sexual identity.  Like most small cities and towns, it was actually much more complicated than that.  In its rush to judgment and to file the story, the media missed out on something.  It missed out on the fact that much like we are not a red and blue United States, it’s really more purple, the town of Laramie, Wyoming wasn’t all filled with bigots who thought a night of gay-bashing would be the highlight of the week. It’s not a town where everyone regarded a man beaten and left for dead tied to a fence in the same way they regarded a bunch of teenagers out for a night of cow-tipping.

The town of Laramie lost something that day as well. Townsfolk who just wanted to live their lives were thrust into the public spotlight and while they struggled with their own feelings about what had happened in that field just outside of town, they also had to struggle with how the media painted them.

Not long after the murder, playwright Moises Kaufman took a crew from his theater group, Tectonic Theater Project, from New York City to Laramie.  Unlike the rest of the media, Kaufman spent time with the people of Laramie in the aftermath of the Shepard murder and listened to what they had to say as well as their struggles as their town was now put on trial in the national spotlight.

The DVD The Laramie Project is an adaptation of the theatrical play crafted from interviews made by Kaufman and his crew with the residents of Laramie, Wyoming following the beating death of Matthew Shepard.  The DVD doesn’t cast you adrift for those of the younger generation who were too young to remember the incident firsthand but opens with the news clips of the event.  From there, it launches into the interviews.

I’ve read reviews where people griped about actors being used to portraying the people of the town. As this wasn’t crafted as a documentary, but initially as a stage production, with just a handful of actors on the stage portraying multiple roles, it’s not really a fair comparison.  On the other hand, I do have to agree that to a degree, the list of stars can be distracting.  Headlining the list of celebrities in this film are Nestor Carbonell, Christina Ricci, Dylan Baker, Peter Fonda, Jeremy Davies, Janeane Garofalo, Laura Linney, Steve Buscemi, Camryn Manheim, Frances Sternhagen, and Amy Madigan portraying the characters compiled from over 200 interviews done with the local residents.

At first, everyone seems to be saying that Laramie is a live and let live kind of town.  As the interviews continue over the course of time, the interviewers break through the crust and get to the people who are gay and living in the town, and the portrait of the town changes a bit.  Janeane Garofalo portrays a lesbian who’s a teacher.  She’s one of the more candid characters about the town and the climate.  A farmer/rancher who declares his love for the land also laments the climate that keeps him in the closet and traveling more than an hour to meet other gay men.

Perhaps the character I found most compelling, though was that of Reggie Fluty (portrayed by Amy Madigan).  She was the first officer on the scene of Matthew Shepard’s beating and reacted with horror and compassion as well as disregard for her own safety.  The result is months of her being tested to see if she is HIV-positive while her family stands alongside her, all of their lives in limbo.  They are all struggling with their feelings over what happened in so many ways and it serves to illustrate the variety of ways something like this affects people that people don’t think about.

There’s a good amount of extras on the DVD that help understand the process of making this film. Perhaps Kaufman and his crew were a bit naive when they initially headed out to Laramie, but I think in some ways this served them well.  They didn’t approach the situation with a chip on their shoulders but rather invited residents to talk to them so they could present the real Laramie to the outside world.  In the end, it’s much like many other towns and cities across the country with a variety of citizens, some who are nice and some who are not nice.  That’s the scary part of a film like this for so many people – after viewing it you realize it could happen anywhere, even where you live.  Your neighbors who you think you know so well might have the capability of committing such an atrocity.

The film is well crafted even with a very different format than most movie viewers are used to. It’s depicting a moment that is like a contraction in the birthing process as our society evolves into one that is hopefully more enlightened.  Although I know the bias still exists (one need only read the hoopla surrounding two lesbians at a prom in Mississippi earlier this spring to understand that), we have come quite a distance since this time. I live in a town smaller than Laramie, Wyoming and there’s an openly gay and lesbian population here that I don’t believe would have existed at the time of this murder.  It’s just a shame we haven’t moved to the point where a film like this can be seen in every classroom to open up a candid dialogue to prevent something similar from happening.


• Cast & Director Biographies
• The Making of The Laramie Project
· Featurette 1
• Featurette 2

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