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HBO presents
The Laramie Project (2002)

"Why they're exemplifying Matthew Shepard I don't know. A hate crime's a hate crime, you murder somebody, you hate them."
- Sherry Johnson (Laura Linney)

Review By: Brian Calhoun   
Published: July 21, 2002

Stars: Dylan Baker, Tom Bower, Clancy Brown, Steve Buscemi, Nestor Carbonell, Kathleen Chalfant, Jeremy Davies, Clea Duvall, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofalo
Other Stars: Bill Irwin, Joshua Jackson, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Margo Martindale, Camryn Manheim, Christina Ricci, Lois Smith, Frances Sternhagen, Mark Webber
Director: Moisés Kaufman

Manufacturer: Digital Video Compression Center
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language and adult content)
Run Time: 01h:34m:54s
Release Date: June 25, 2002
UPC: 026359189722
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+B+ C

DVD Review

In October of 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence post and savagely beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming. The motive behind this heinous crime was no other reason than hatred towards Shepard's homosexuality. Statistics report that as many as 60 of these types of anti-gay crimes happen every year in America, yet Shepard's beating was instantly recognized nationwide and quickly became a media event. What was it about this horrible occurrence over any other that generated so much attention? Shortly after the Shepard murder, filmmaker Moisés Kaufman set out to find an answer.

Along with seven other members of the New York-based Tectonic theater group, Kaufman traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, where they recorded more than 400 hours of interviews with the town residents over a two-year period. The interviews would serve as the basis for a stage play, which has now been adapted into a feature film, The Laramie Project. The film is a dramatized version of the research conducted by the Tectonic group, with a handful of famous actors playing the roles of the group and the Laramie townspeople. Although Laramie residents were not cast, the dialogue for the film consists of the unaltered transcripts from the interviews with the real life inhabitants of Laramie.

The Laramie Project is less about trying to discover an answer for the Shepard murder than it is about human behavior. Matthew Shepard is not portrayed in this dramatized retelling of events; the only insight given to his life are the statements from what the townspeople remember of him. There is no real message conveyed, as each person's viewpoint is conflicts with that of the previous. We watch innumerable Laramie citizens wonder in astonishment at how such violent killers could be a part of their community, and at the same time, others wonder how the gay lifestyle could have possibly "plagued" their town. The town slogan is "Live and let live", yet one interviewee claims that he believes this crime is partially the fault of the murderers and partially the fault of Matthew Shepard.

The Laramie Project is incredibly gripping, yet I am inclined to believe that a true documentary might have been more effective than this fictionalized version. There are moments thrown in for dramatic effect that completely took me out of the element of the film. The use of innumerable famous actors is also quite often distracting; the presence of their well-recognized faces lacks the true feeling of a close-knit Wyoming community, which detracts somewhat from gaining empathy towards them. Most of the actors do, however, deliver fantastic performances.

Kaufman's direction is tight and skilled. He used subtle methods to keep the audience entertained for the entire length of the film, despite its redundancies. Unusual for a documentary style is the use of music throughout, which enhanced the eerie mood. It would have been incredibly easy for Kaufman to become too melodramatic and hit the audience over the head with his views on morality, yet I never felt as if the film was preaching to me. Instead of trying to make sense out of Shepard's murder, The Laramie Project is merely an honest telling of how one town dealt with this tragic event.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: The Laramie Project is presented in anamorphic widescreen with varying aspect ratios. Most of the film is 1.85:1, while the split screen presentations appear to be framed at approximately 2.40:1. At first, this seemed rather awkward, and I wondered why the entire film was not simply framed at 2.40:1. As the film progressed, however, I found that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio was a much more logical choice for the interview segments, while the split screens certainly justified the 2.40:1 frame. The overall image conveys a gritty documentary feel, with grain often intentionally used to heighten this effect. Most of the picture exhibits a striking visual appearance with few distractions. Many of the distance shots of the town are soft and fuzzy, while most of the close-ups are remarkably detailed. Occasionally, I noticed irritating amounts of edge enhancement. Color is beautifully rendered throughout, and black level is purely outstanding. This is a solid image that is certain to impress.

Also available is a full-frame version. The 1.85:1 segments are presented in 1:33.1 while the 2.40:1 segments remain in their original aspect ratio, nonanamorphic.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack pleasantly surprised me for a film of this nature. Surround use is subtle but frequently active. Music flows through the soundstage with an expansive and enveloping presence. The dynamic musical score boasts impressively deep and clean bass, with the exception of one moment where the low end is dreadfully "boomy." Dialogue is remarkably clear, yet there are several synchronization problems where it does not match the actors' mouths. Aside from a few glitches, this is an impressive soundtrack that takes full advantage of the 5.1 format.

Also included is a 2.0 English and Spanish soundtrack. While this mix is serviceable, the 5.1 track is clearly the best choice.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Production Notes
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The lack of special features is somewhat disappointing for a film that should have been given more attention.

The Making of The Laramie Project is a bit misleading. I inferred this title to mean a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary, but instead it is merely a short section of production notes. Although interesting tidbits are revealed, I was left wanting more.

Two brief featurettes are offered, simply titled Featurette 1 and Featurette 2. Featurette 1 shows typical on-set interviews with the actors, as well as the real life people of Laramie that they portray. Featurette 2 features more interviews with the cast and the crew, which were predominately taken from the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The combined running time for both featurettes is a brief eight minutes.

Rounding out this inconsiderable set of special features are biographies for the cast and director Moisés Kaufman.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Although it is a fictionalized documentary, The Laramie Project is an incredibly realistic portrayal of one town's attempt to deal with an unspeakable event. Featuring terrific performances and a stunning story based on a real life event, this is an important film well worth seeing.


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