University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard's brutal gay-bashing murder focused national attention as no incident had before on homophobia and related hate crimes. Moises Kaufman's film version of "The Laramie Project" will serve a noble purpose in again confronting a large audience with that issue.

University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard’s brutal gay-bashing murder focused national attention as no incident had before on homophobia and related hate crimes. Moises Kaufman’s film version of “The Laramie Project” — a stage play he and New York City’s eight-member Tectonic Theater Project derived from hundreds of hours spent interviewing local residents — will serve a noble purpose in again confronting a large audience with that issue. Inevitably powerful due to its subject matter, pic itself reps a decently crafted yet somewhat problematic blurring of the lines between reportage, re-enactment and dramatization. Best suited to the tube, where prevalence of the docudrama form will make its multiple degrees of “reality” seem most palatable, HBO production bows on that net in March.

Partly developed as both a stage and film entity under Sundance Lab auspices, the work began when successful Off Broadway writer-director Kaufman (of “Gross Indecency,” which not-dissimilarly reshaped transcript from Oscar Wilde’s turn-of-the-the-century trials) and his collaborating actors arrived in Laramie, Wyo., about a month after Shepard’s 1998 death. Stage piece debuted in Denver, then played New York, in 2000.

Two local youths, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were charged with driving Shepard (who’d asked for a ride home) from a local bar to a remote point on the city outskirts. Later claiming that he’d made physical overtures to them, they savagely pistol-whipped and hand-beat the diminutive 21-year-old, then tied him — shoeless and bleeding — to a cattle fence in the mid-October cold. Discovered 18 hours later by a passing bicyclist, Shepard never regained consciousness. After several days in a coma brought on by a head injury, he died.

By then national media attention, candlelight vigils and protests had made the case a cause celebre, one drawing public comment even from President Clinton.

Kaufman and company found locals initially resistant to further attention.Nonetheless, the New Yorkers succeeded in interviewing a wide range of relevant persons, from those who knew Shepard or knew the accused to police, university and hospital personnel and members of the Laramie community. At 95 minutes an hour shorter than its legit incarnation, the filmed “Laramie Project” both benefits and suffers from the translation to location-shot, realistic re-creation. Kaufman, adapting the group-assembled text for his first screen effort, wisely minimizes the actors’ commenting about their feelings. While playing reporter was no doubt a difficult, even life-changing experience, those aspects were occasionally aired to a self-indulgent degree onstage.

Details of the murder and events leading to it are also dwelt on more tersely; there’s no re-enactment per se of the night itself, lending greater focus to a shocked community’s reaction — as well as that community’s all-American, all-over-the-map character mix.

On the other hand, “The Laramie Project’s” simplicity as theater — the actors played themselves and various interviewees on a bare stage — provided at least one degree less separation than the screen version does.

Here, actual news footage is intercut with actors playing media personnel. Variably well known actors play unknown ones interviewing actors playing real Laramie residents. Most notable among the latter include Peter Fonda as chief physician at the hospital; Amy Madigan as the police officer who first arrived at the scene and for a time feared HIV blood infection; an atypically hoarse-voiced Janeane Garofalo as the university’s first “out” gay instructor; Jeremy Davies as a drama student; Steve Buscemi as a taxi driver who’d befriended the victim; Christina Ricci as a close peer friend; and Mark Webber as the convicted murderer McKinney.

There are few false performance moments here, and a number of impressive ones, from Laura Linney’s monologue as a politely homophobic housewife to Terry Kinney as Dennis Shepard, the grieving father whose agonizing courtroom speech — which may have spared Aaron McKinney the death penalty — provides pic its emotional climax.

Yet the artifice inherent in recasting this story via so many familiar professional faces does lend this “Laramie Project” a hybrid, pseudo-real quality that’s often distracting. One need only remember two films drawn from a similar Heartland gay hate-crime case — docu “The Brandon Teena Story” and its widely seen loose dramatization “Boys Don’t Cry” — to see how a simpler approach, in either direction, could ultimately serve a true story better than this elaborate quasi-documentary construct does.

That said, the heart-wrenching nature of the material does eventually come through, gracefully making points about tolerance, the communities we live in and their ability to change. Brian A. Kates’ excellent editing maintains a strong sense of narrative momentum through the script’s potentially tricky structure.

Occasional overuse of split-screen effects to convey multiple p.o.v.s reps most notable visual tactic in an otherwise straightforward, workmanlike presentation. Peter Golub contributes a score that’s nearly omnipresent in its sweetened Philip Glass-style repeat of orchestral motifs.

The Laramie Project

Production

An HBO Films presentation of a Good Machine production in association with Cane/Gabay Prods. Produced by Declan Baldwin. Executive producers, Ross Katz, Anne Carey, Ted Hope. Co-executive producers, Peter Cane, Roy Gabay. Directed by Moises Kaufman. Screenplay, Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project -- Leigh Fondakowski, Jeffrey LaHoste, Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh, Amanda Gronich, John McAdams, Andy Paris, Barbara Pitts, Kelli Simpkins --based on the play by Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Terry Stacey; editor, Brian A. Kates; music, Peter Golub; music supervisor, Alex Steyermark; production designer, Dan Leigh; art director, Tim Duffy; set decorator, Paul Sjoberg; costume designer, Katie Saunders; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Abbott; supervising sound editor, Andy Kris; assistant director, Chip Signore; second unit camera, Kip Bogdahn; casting, Ann Goulder. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (opening night), Salt Lake City, Jan. 10, 2002. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Dylan Baker, Stephen Belber, Tom Bower, Clancy Brown, Steve Buscemi, Nestor Carbonell, Kathleen Chalfant, Jeremy Davies, Clea Duvall, Michael Emerson, Noah Fleiss, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofalo, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, Bill Irwin, Joshua Jackson, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim, Margo Martindale, John McAdams, James Murtaugh, Andy Paris, Summer Phoenix, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, Christina Ricci, Richard Riehle, Kelli Simpkins, Lois Smith, Frances Sternhagen, Mark Webber.

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