When a small town comes face to face with murder, everybody has a tale to tell.
* This is a longer than normal film review.
Laramie, Wyoming. Population 26687. A small town in an idyllic, rustic, and rural Wyoming. On October 7, 1998 – that all changed when 21 year old college student, Matthew Shepard, was found after he was beaten, robbed, and left to die while tied to a fence the night before. All because he was gay.
When Moisés Kaufman, head of The Tectonic Theatre Project heard of the incident, he realised that there was something about this case. He and a handful of the company members, travelled to Laramie, WY and over the course of the next year and half until the final sentencing, interviewed hundreds of locals while witnessing this historic even themselves. From those notes, they created and produced the now iconic play, “The Laramie Project”. This film, equally o the same name, is not the play itself, but rather an adapted TV Movie. This poignant film recounts all of the reactions to Matthew Shepard’s murder; it is not an easy film to watch – especially for gay men like myself. It strikes a nerve and truly hits home…
For me personally, it IS home – Laramie, Wyoming is my hometown.
Synopsis of “The Laramie Project”
As an orchestral track starts to play, we get glimpses of Laramie. A flyover of the courthouse and downtown; cars driving along the street of the small rural town; the train rolling through the industrial part of town. Yet interspersed though this relaxing view are brief quotes that pull us out of the calm and hint at the tragedy about to unfold. We next see a tape recorder while we see the date: November 14, 1998. Moisés (Nestor Carbonell) talks with Rebecca Hilliker (Camryn Manheim), the head of the University of Wyoming theatre department. She candidly mentions how she initially felt offended Moisés wanted to interview everyone in town, but then admitted that her students and the people wanted to talk about what is happening in Laramie. In a message that is relayed through many other interviews, the people of Laramie talk about they Laramie they know – not what the media is portraying them.
In the next moment (as the film retains the plays iconic “moment” structure) members of the cast provide journal entries to the camera as they talk about how Moisés approached them and their initial thoughts. Some were apprehensive, but cast member Stephen Belber (Andy Paris) spoke of how he is torn as an out gay man going to a town where a man was killed for being gay. Splitting the screen during this moment, we are also treated to the scenic drive into Laramie; a map of the city itself, and of the crew arriving at their motel. But while Rebecca was ready to talk about Matthew, not everyone in Laramie wanted to talk. As the film progresses, we start to get a mixed picture from the interviewees. Leigh Fondakowski (Kelli Simpkins) tries to speak to a local who rather curtly says he’s not interested, that they aren’t even welcome in town.. Even those who want to speak and help hold back, such as Marge Murray (Frances Sternhagen). Because her daughter is of one of the main police investigators, she initially holds back with her comments. We slowly are introduced to a couple more key persons within the story: Doc O’Conner (Steve Buscemi) who often drove Matthew to the gay bars in Colorado, Romaine Patterson (Christina Ricci), one of Matt’s best friends; and Jedadiah Schultz (Jeremy Davies), a UoW student studying theatre.
After learning about the events on the night of October 6 at the Fireside Lounge from bartender Matt Galloway (Joshua Jackson), the camera takes us on a drive through the streets of Laramie at night… and then out into the open ranch, stopping at a wooden fence highlighted by the truck lights. After a moment looking at at the lights of Laramie in the distance, the screen changes to daylight while Aaron Kreifels (Ben Foster) sombrely tells how he miraculously found Matthew tied to the fence – thinking he was just a scarecrow. We skip ahead to the “Statement of the Facts” moment, when the judge reads out the events of that evening during Aaron McKinney (Mark Webber) and Russell Henderson’s (Garrett Neergaard) arraignment. Cutting through this scene are interviews with Reggie Fluty (Amy Madigan) who is the officer first on scene who tried to help save Matthew, Detective Rob Debree (Clancy Brown), and Doctor Cantway (Peter Fonda) who initially treated Matthew in the ER before he was flown down to Fort Collins.
And then the media descends. Using actual media footage and overlaying the news anchors, the story breaks around the nation. Rulon Stacy (Dylan Baker) gives a medical update to the growing crowd outside Poudre Valley Hospital on Matthew’s condition on Oct 10 – her remains in a coma, his parents at his bedside after arriving the night before. During this time Matt was diagnosed with HIV, so Reggie Fluty and her mother discuss about that panic for them because Reggie had direct contact with Matthew trying to save him at the fence. Religious music chimes in as videos and footage of the many candlelight vigils are shown, held around the world praying for Matthew’s recovery. A few turned into protests as anti-gay crowd started to show up and stir trouble; we hear from a couple of people who believe being gay is sinful and wrong – Jedadiah himself actually admits he was unsure how to feel during all of this.
The people of Laramie, including a few gay and lesbian folks, recount how they feel threatened by proxy during all of this – having to look over their shoulder now in a town they thought they were safe in. But not all hope is lost, as Harry Woods (Bill Irwin) tearfully recalls how the group walking for Matthew at the tail end of the homecoming game that weekend swelled larger than the actual parade group when it came back past his bedroom window. Not all feel this way though, as local Sherry Johnson (Laura Linney) recalls how Matthew is getting all the media attention, that he’s being painted as an innocent martyr; that he flaunted being gay, that is spreading AIDS. But when Greg Pierotti (Grant Varjas) and Leigh (both Project members) interview Father Roger Schmitt (Tom Bower), “two queers and a Catholic priest”, they’re surprised that Father asks them to tell the story truthfully and not make matters worse. Leigh recounts in a journal entry that people want to tell their story, they want Laramie to be remembered for the people and not branded because of this crime. Sadly, some continue to push the sin of Matthew’s homosexuality. Amanda Gronich (Clea DuVall) runs into the Baptist Minister (Michael Emerson) who tells her that he hopes that before Matt “slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle.”
Unfortunately, the next medical update in the early morning of Oct 12 is the last. “At 12:53 am, Matthew Shepard died.” Rulon Stacy tells the reports. But while he reads the statement from Judy and Dennis Shepard, he starts to cry as he reads “Go home, give your kids a hug and don’t let a day go by without telling them that you love them.” While sombre music plays and we again look out across the lights of Laramie, a news anchor reports how the charges were upgraded to first-degree murder. Doc O’Conner recounts how he didn’t want them to get the death penalty, that it would defeat everything Matt fought for. Matt would’ve wanted to leave them with hope. During a montage of Matthew’s funeral, dimmed by the rain and umbrellas held by everyone, a jarring noise rises out and cuts deep: the voice of Fred Phelps (James Murtaugh), part of the Westboro Baptist Church, protesting with signs of “Matt in Hell” and “God Hates Fags”.
We skip ahead five months to the trial of Russell Henderson. Romaine Patterson gathers her friends and they create the now iconic angel wings they wear to stand in front of the protestors at the trial, drowning out the naysayers. Meanwhile, Trish Steger (Margo Martindale) panics when they started the juror selection – no one wanted to be picked. Worse, she recounts how Henderson was in the room and had to listen as each potential juror stated over and over that yes, they can put him to death. In the case of Henderson though, his lawyers reached an agreement with the prosecution; in agreement to admitting a guilty plea, he would not face the death penalty. Even though his grandmother, Lucy Thomson (Lois Smith) reads a statement begging the court to not take away their Russell forever, Henderson is sentenced to two life sentences to be served consecutively.
For Aaron McKinney, he doesn’t get off as easily. Six months later, almost a year after Matthew’s murder, the death-penalty trail gets underway. During scenes of the trial, the prosecution plays a taped recording of McKinney being interrogated by Rob Debree. The entire conversation is shown between the two, as McKinney admits they initially just pretended to be gay to rob Matthew. But he states that when Matthew “starts grabbing my leg and grabbing my genitals. I was like, ‘Look, I’m not a fuckin’ faggot. If you touch me again, you’re gonna get it.’ I don’t know what the hell he was trying to do, but I beat him up pretty bad. Think I killed him”. The defence took this and tied to run with it; the “gay panic” defence the media were calling it. But as Rebecca Hilliker recounts, as much as she was afraid that they would try to say that it was a gay bashing – she was grateful. That “if nothing else the truth is going to be told… the truth is coming out.” Returning back to the interrogation, McKinney further admits that he doesn’t like gay guys, especially when they come onto him. He asks if Matthew is going to die. Debree replies “There is no doubt that Mr. Shepard is going to die.” In the end, the jury finds McKinney guilty on both charges.
McKinney’s defence team tries to make a plea bargain to remove the death penalty from the table, but the decision rests solely with the Shepards. At the sentencing trial, Dennis Shepard (Terry Kinney) addresses the jury and McKinney. In a powerful and tear-inducing statement, Dennis states that despite reports otherwise, Judy, Dennis, and Matt all support the death penalty and that he “would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney.” But instead, they choose “to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy.
“Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew. Every time you celebrate Christmas, a birthday, the Fourth of July, remember that Matt isn’t. Every time you wake up in your prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that. Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it.”
While the media circus packs up and leaves, everything else starts to wrap up. Reggie finds out that she has tested negative and celebrates by kissing everyone on the force “male or female, I didn’t care!” The Project teams packs up their notes as locals talk about the lingering effects of the whole event. They wonder what the future holds; how change is not an easy thing. Jonas Slonaker (John McAdams) is frustrated that nearly a year afterwards, no one has passed any hate crime protections nor passed any anti-gay protections. To answer this, we watch the UoW production of “Angels In America” starring Jedadiah Schultz, as he gives the Prior’s powerful final speech in which he claims that the dead will not be forgotten. And while the camera zooms out over the lights of Laramie and the orchestra holds a single note, Doc O’Conner recalls how Matt once told him how Laramie sparkles at night.
“The last thing he saw on this earth was the sparkling lights of Laramie, Wyoming.”
I have very little to say negatively about this TV adaptation of “The Laramie Project.” As I previously mentioned – this film is not the play. The play takes place on an empty stage with minimal props; the multiple characters are portrayed by a small ensemble cast while they don costume elements to “change” characters. With this adaptation to film, a lot of that was changed. Actors only played one character, events were filmed on location. As such, it’s not actually even fair to compare this film to the stage play.
Yet even in this different format, the script and the point stands strong. Not only does the film document the facts and events of the tragedy, the iconic “moment” style of The Tectonic Theater Company carries through and key moments/sensations are forced upon the audience like with the play. Even the use of well known actors and actresses does not diminish the power of this history. The only thing I could maybe harp on is that because the cast of “The Laramie Project” is an ensemble cast, it can feel more like a documentary or a dramatic interpretation rather than building a vessel to carry the story to the audience. But even that’s a subtle point and does not diminish the film’s strength.
I have read a few a few reviews where they attack the cinematography as amateur and an odd confusion of documentary and melodrama. I disagree. If “The Laramie Project” were filmed and released today in 2020 – then yes, there are some issues. But this was back in 2001/2002 and it’s a TV Film, not a studio release. For some, they view TV Films/Movies as subpar – I don’t. Additionally, it’s hard to compare this to other films because it DOES fall into a weird place. It’s not a “play on screen”, it’s not a documentary. But the unique “moment” structure that Moisés and The Tectonic Theatre Project created can feel like that. It feels disjointed at times, almost bouncing from person to person, from thought to thought. Yet it’s how they string all of that together to create those “ah hah” moments where this style of writing excels. Is it perfection? No. But my rating score takes all of that into account.
There are a couple things that really stand out with “The Laramie Project”. First and foremost is that the brilliant play by Moisés Kaufman and the cast of the Tectonic Theatre Project holds its ground even in a new format. The play itself is an example of verbatim theatre, drawing from interviews, journal entries, and media reports. Portrayed by a small ensemble cast over three acts, the iconic signature of the stage play are its “moments”. While challenging to remain neutral and present the accounts of real life persons, the script tries to show both sides and lets the audience decide how to react. The end result is powerful, emotional, and a sight to experience; this film adaptation retains all of that while providing additional opportunities.
The change in format, along with excellent direction and cinematography, allows key elements of the play to excel. The pacing of the script in this adaptation of “The Laramie Project” ebbs and flows with the feeling of each moment. When things are chaotic such as when the media descends upon Laramie, onstage multiple reporters come onto the stage and build on top of each other, while transmitting their feeds to monitors across the stage until you’re overwhelmed. In this film adaptation, the same effect happens but we get added visuals with the actual news reports until the screen is filled with four different anchors talking over each other. Yet later on when the pacing needs to be slower – the style changes and is used methodically. During Dennis’ speech at the sentencing, the camera does not cut back and forth but rather provides smooth, longer sections that highlight the emotion of the moment. The pauses, both in actor Terry Kinney’s acting and the camera work add a sharpness to Dennis Shepard’s words.
The film adaptation also allows Moisés to work with better and stronger visuals. While most stage productions of the play use a series of photographs to showcase Laramie, on film we can actually use the footage filmed as the crew drives into the city passing the sign for Laramie. After we hear Matt Galloway recount seeing Matthew Shepard leaving the Fireside Lounge with McKinney and Henderson, the camera actually takes us on the drive out to the scene of the crime. Driving through the town watching lights roll past the windshield, cutting to driving through the open grass until the truck rolls up to a wooden fence – highlighted only by the light of the truck’s high beams. Or in a segment used at least three times throughout the film, we actually look out over and watch the lights of Laramie sparkle in the distance with the Smokey Range Mountains as a background. It might not be blockbuster quality, but it all pulls together quite beautifully to tell a tragic yet powerful story.
“The Laramie Project” is not only a powerful stage play, but this film adaptation takes it to a new level. It has allowed the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard be told around the world and reach an even broader audience. But it’s also a hard film to watch because it’s all based on actual events. For me personally, it’s a difficult film to watch; one I do not watch often. Thankfully the power of Matthew’s legacy can be felt with just one viewing. So if you have not yet seen “The Laramie Project”, grab yourself a copy (and a box of tissues!) and help ensure that his death will not be forgotten. We have already made major strides forward in the decades since, but they will always be under attack. It is only by continuing to recall events such as Matthew Shepard’s murder, will we persevere and continue the advance forward towards equality for all.
Queer Relevance of “The Laramie Project”
There is no question nor doubt, “The Laramie Project” is as relevant to the Queer community as Stonewall and other events. Matthew Shepard was not specifically a special person. He was simply another innocent faced young college student struggling to find his way in life. Yet even at the young age of 21, he was already starting to become a political activist. I’m sure he would be blessed that his death has pushed LGBTQ activism further than he could’ve dreamed. His tragic murder not only shocked the nation but created a ripple effect that is still going strong today – all because he was gay. Even attempts to pinpoint the cause on a “robbery gone wrong” or even on drugs cannot deter from facts and statements of his murderers; it WAS a hate crime.
Thankfully, while we continue to mourn the loss of such a young man, Matthew’s murder has been a catalyst for advancing LGBTQ rights and protections. Shortly after his death, Dennis and Judy Shepard established the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Judy herself has become a prominent queer activist and continues advocating for equality. The national reach of Matthew’s murder, the trial, and more forced many Americans to question their beliefs and lay the groundwork for the advancements the Queer community have to celebrate today. The hard work truly paid off when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law in 2009.
The play itself, and this film adaptation, are equally queer relevant. Moisés’ goal in creating “The Laramie Project” was to not memorialise Matthew, but rather capture the immediate reactions to his murder and explore the underlying bigotry and hatred that enabled it. In fact, the initial New York production was not commercially viable! Yet something incredible started. After The Tectonic Theatre Project brought the play to Laramie as promised, a different crowd began to produce the play. Before long, amateur and small community theatres around the world were putting up productions. The play gained a life of its own – as an educational tool. When HBO approached Moisés to adapt the stage play to film, this end result took its reach to unexpected levels. Today, an estimated 10 million people have seen the play staged in at least 20 countries and in 13 languages; over 20 million have watched this HBO adaptation; and over 100,000 have purchased copies of the script.
Lastly, “The Laramie Project” has a personal relevance. Laramie is where I was born, and where many on my father’s side of the family still reside. Meanwhile the Shepard’s hail from Casper, Wyoming – where my mother’s side of the family still call home. As if that were not relevance enough, a member of my family was one of the jurors for McKinney’s trial! Even though I was only 12 when Matthew Shepard was found tied to the fence and my folks tried to shelter some of the news, I knew it was pivotal to me. Later in high school while I was finally sorting out and accepting my own sexuality as a gay man, I was introduced to “The Laramie Project”. The local university staged the production – I broke down; so many things clicked together for me. From that point on, I have endeavoured to learn all that I can about Matthew and his murder. It’s an event I can never forget, something I feel a strong draw towards. I’ll continue to be an advocate and work to ensure that Matthew’s legacy is not forgotten.