Talk of the townspeople of Laramie

Preview: Based on their views on life, death and Matthew Shepard, `The Laramie Project' is about as good as TV gets.

March 09, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There are two major television movies related to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard airing in the next week. HBO has The Laramie Project tonight, while NBC offers The Matthew Shepard Story next Saturday.

Of the two, tonight's Laramie Project is the one you don't want to miss - though it is not really about Shepard, the 21-year-old college student who was brutally murdered by two young men who hated him because he was gay. As the title suggests, HBO's film is about Laramie, Wyo., specifically its culture and community following an attack that shocked the nation.

The film is adapted from the acclaimed off-Broadway play by Moises Kaufman (Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde), with one of the most talented casts ever for a television movie. It includes: Steve Buscemi (Fargo), Dylan Baker (Happiness), Terry Kinney (Oz), Janeane Garofalo (Reality Bites), Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me), Amy Madigan (Shot in the Heart), Camryn Manheim (The Practice), Peter Fonda (Ulee's Gold) and Christina Ricci (The Opposite of Sex).

Kaufman directed from a screenplay that he wrote with the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project. The eight-member New York theater group traveled to Laramie after Shepard's death in 1998 to record some 200 hours of interviews with the town's residents over two years. HBO's film adaptation dramatizes the group's journey, using words from the interviews to create a portrait of Laramie. We learn about the townspeople's attitudes - not only toward sexual orientation, but also social class, gender, economics - as well as their hopes and fears.

The Laramie Project is theater as anthropology made into an illuminating and moving TV movie. It is just the kind of risky and exciting hybrid that's a reminder of why HBO has come to be the best hope for those who believe in the possibilities of television as art.

The first of many splendid performances belongs to Madigan as the sheriff's deputy, Reggie Fluty, who was first on the scene, and found Shepard severely beaten, unconscious and tied to a fence off a rural road outside of Laramie. He had been left that way in sub-zero temperatures overnight by his assailants.

"When I got to the fence, I seen what appeared to be a young man - 13, 14 years of age - because he was so tiny laying there," Fluty says. "And he was bound to the bottom of a pole. ... He was covered in dried blood all over his head, and the only place that there wasn't any blood was where it appeared to be that he was crying down his face."

Later Fluty finds out that Shepard was HIV-positive - and that she is at risk because she reached out to cradle him in her arms when she untied him without first putting on gloves. Madigan shows tremendous emotional range without letting us for a second see the acting. From the minute she opens her mouth, we believe in this Reggie Fluty.

Two other performances that are difficult to forget are those of Buscemi and Kinney. Buscemi plays Doc O'Connor, a limousine driver who was hired to drive Shepard to a gay bar in Fort Collins, which is about an hour away. There are no gay bars in Laramie.

Buscemi doesn't even have to open his mouth. We just have to look at him standing there in a baseball cap with the hood up on his limousine, and we're inside his character. Buscemi does attitude with body language better than anyone this side of Robert De Niro.

Kinney delivers the film's emotional highpoint as Shepard's dad, Dennis, addressing one of his son's killers in court after the young man is found guilty. Dennis Shepard holds the power to ask for the death penalty.

"I would like nothing better than to see you die," he says. "However this is the time to show mercy to someone who refused to show mercy ... I give you life in the name of one who no longer lives."

Kinney's delivery makes it sound as much a curse as a benediction, not only on his son's killer, but on the community that let it happen.

Made-for-TV

What: The Laramie Project

When: Tonight at 8

Where: HBO

In brief: An Our Town for our times, in the wake of the infamous hate crime.

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