The death of 21-year old Wyoming student Matthew Shepard shocked America and the world. Beaten up by two youths, he was taken to the outskirts of town, tied to a fence and beaten mercilessly until the only part of him that was not covered in blood were the tracks of tears down his face. He died in hospital six days later, on October 12 1998.
The event rocked the small town of Laramie where Matt and his murderers grew up. For a while, the nation’s — indeed the world’s — eyes were upon a town with less than 25,000 residents. As part of the analysis, playwright Moisés Kaufman and a group of actors from this company, the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and conducted interviews with the townsfolk. Out of those conversations came the play The Laramie Project, an adaptation both of the transcripts and the process of acquiring them.
As a stage piece, I’ve always felt the play was fundamentally flawed — with a small ensemble cast, each having to take on multiple roles, the mechanics of theatre tend to overshadow the horrors of the reality the cast attempt to portray. This was one of the main faults of the recent London performance, powerful as it was. And so, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch the film version, now available on VHS and DVD (to rent, and to buy from 7 July 2003).
The film was selected to open the 2002 Sundance Festival, and from its opening frames it’s easy to see that the medium of film has transformed the stage play into something far superior.
The play’s director Moisés Kaufman again takes the helm, making his debut into the world of film direction. Apart from two of the original Theater Project actors (who play themselves), each character is portrayed by a different actor or actress. This makes for a far more believable experience as a viewer, requiring less suspension of disbelief. Financial backing from US cable channel HBO means that the cast consists of some of the cream of American acting talent. The impressive roll call of actors includes Christina Ricci as a friend of Matthew; Janeane Garofalo as the first out lesbian professor at the University of Wyoming; Steve Buscemi as a car service driver who took Shepard to a gay bar in Colorado; Joshua Jackson as the bartender who served Shepard the night he met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men who murdered him; and Amy Madigan as the police officer who was first on the murder scene.
Shot in a documentary style, Kaufman intercuts reconstructed events with his expanded acting troupe with genuine news reports surrounding the aftermath of Matthew’s death. Unlike the play, the lives of the residents of Wyoming comes to the fore, and the actors collecting the interviews become less of a focal point, which is as it should be. While it’s always apparent that these are actors working to a script — the speeches are all too measured, too contemplative, to convince anyone that they’re watching a documentary — there is not one performance that is anything less than solid. Special praise has to go to Madigan’s police chief, as she learns that her desperation to help the blood-soaked Matthew had left her exposed to the AIDS virus after hearing that Shepard was HIV-positive; also to Jackson’s barman, who plays exactly the right level of self-deprecating humour that shines through from the original transcript. James Murtaugh also puts in a chilling performance as the hate-filled Reverend Fred Phelps, who led his church into protesting at Shepard’s funeral and who has organised numerous protests at stagings of the play and the film ever since.
Not even the hardest of hearts could sit through this film with a dry eye. It is a powerhouse of a film that will leave you mourning someone you never knew, and determined to ensure that nobody receives the same fate as the young man that the world took into their hearts.