The Laramie Project

The film version of “The Laramie Project” sidesteps the same pitfalls the play also managed to avoid. It does not come off as preachy or self-righteous, instead letting its extraordinary story speak for itself.

It’s a complicated project. The film is based on a play, and the play is at least partially about six people trying to write a play. It is one of the few dramatic works that successfully tells of its own inception, while also telling its actual story. (“Hamlet” doesn’t discuss the labors Shakespeare went through in writing “Hamlet,” for example, and “Citizen Kane” is completely silent on the making of “Citizen Kane.”)

It is also an emotional project, and a highly emotional and moving film, though it clearly worked better as a play. After the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, Moises Kaufman sent his group of writers to Laramie, Wyo., to interview townspeople. From 250 such interviews was culled “The Laramie Project,” in which nearly all the dialogue is directly from residents and court transcripts. It is a documentary piece of work, even if it is reenacted here by actors.

And what a group of actors! An ensemble of 53 is present, including Christina Ricci, Steve Buscemi, Laura Linney, Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Dylan Baker, Joshua Jackson, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim and Frances Sternhagen, to name only a few. The performances are earnest and heartfelt; it is reminiscent of a celebrity benefit concert, where dozens of egos take a backseat, momentarily, to do something charitable — though you can’t shake the feeling they’re all aware of the good P.R. points they’re picking up along the way, too. In fact, the familiarity of the faces sometimes is counterproductive for a movie meant to show ordinary people living in an ordinary town.

Moises Kaufman, making his debut as a film director, translates his abstract play very well into the more concrete form of film. It is not terribly cinematic — it often has made-for-TV stamped on it, particularly with the overbearing musical score — but this is not a film you look at. It’s a film you listen to.

And all the right emotions are there. The inhuman, unspeakable crimes committed, the evil of the Christian minister who protested at Shepard’s funeral, the sorrow of an entire nation — all are driven home.

None of the performances is flashy or overwrought. Instead, the actors let the words of the Laramie residents stand on their own. It is telling that the film is least effective when it portrays the interviewers’ reactions to their work. They are affected, of course, as was all of America. But their feelings should not be the centerpiece, because they pale in comparison to the feelings of the people more directly associated with the tragedy.

Kaufman’s idea of documenting a town in turmoil was a daring one, and he pulled it off admirably well. His film adaptation of that work is inferior to the stage version, but it is still a poignant piece of American history.

B+ (; R, a few harsh profanities.)