5 min

Finding our way home

When tolerance is a thin cloth wrapping a very sharp knife

Credit: Xtra files

The best thing about two new feature-length looks at the heinous 1998 gaybashing of Wyoming university student Matthew Shepard is that they either get the worst out of the way quickly or sidle around it, recreating the story with a restraint that only intensifies the drama.

One film shows the crime while the other pays arty post-mortem pilgrimages to the crime scene, but neither dwells on the violence.

Needless to say, the high-impact strategy belongs to the more commercial of the two flicks. Blurring the cinematography but not the horror, The Matthew Shepard Story opens in a farmer’s field outside Laramie, Wyoming. Two men push a tiny, blond man out of a car. One ties him to a rail fence and the other beats him about the head with a foot-long pistol until his head lolls forward in bloody despair. Then they take his shoes and leave him to die in the cold.

The victim, of course is Matthew Shepard. What we don’t learn until later is that he met his assailants in the Fireside Bar, that their names were Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, that they were from Laramie, and that they were the exact same age as Shepard – 21. Kids, just everyday ordinary local kids.

Pretending to be gay, they lured Shepard into their car and onward to the fate that made him a posthumous media celebrity and a symbol of anti-gay violence everywhere.

A passing cyclist found Shepard 18 hours later, his body so badly mutilated the cyclist at first mistook him for a scarecrow. A local policewoman cut Shepard free from the fence. Shepard died in hospital six days later.

The difference between NBC’s The Matthew Shepard Story and its rather more analytical competitor, HBO’s The Laramie Project, is that the latter is interested in the cyclist and the policewoman. With the facts of the case established early on, the filmmakers can only wonder about motivation and their search leads them in different but complimentary directions.

The Matthew Shepard Story rummages for fractures in the Shepard family and fault lines in the kid’s personality. A traditional biopic, it structures the story around romance, pain and reconciliation. In short it’s a standard tear- jerker with above-average acting and direction.

The Laramie Project skips the family and goes for the town. What was it about this particular place that made this murder possible, maybe even probable? Based on a play that was based on interviews with the real inhabitants of Laramie, the Project explores the twisted tolerance of small town USA, a place where they’ll leave you alone as long as you don’t tell them who you are.

Of the two flicks, Project is the more revealing, but Story the more enjoyable, if only because it gives us the man behind the media martyr, his struggles, pain and loneliness.

Structured as a memory play, Story follows Shepard’s numbed parents (Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston) as they struggle to understand their son. Asked to address the jury at the murderer’s sentencing, the parents have to decide who he was. Searching through family relics, they remember their son’s love of the outdoors, his awkwardness with a female date and his emerging sexuality.

Exiled to a Swiss boarding school when his parents move to Saudi Arabia, Matt (Shane Meier) falls in love with an exquisite Italian boy named Paolo (Yani Gellman). The relationship swings to a gentle beat, but falls apart on a school trip to Morocco when Matt chooses the wrong place to show his colours and is beaten up by three men who, in an augury of things to come, also take his shoes.

Back home in Laramie he meets other out homos at the University Of Wyoming (Canadian theatre sensations Damien Atkins and Kristen Thomson in performances that are largely left on the cutting room floor). But Shepard is lonely, his well-intentioned parents don’t quite understand (“You’re supposed to love me but you don’t even know who I am”) and Shepard moves to Denver in search of a more accepting community. That doesn’t work out either and fighting both panic and pills, not to mention a homophobic boss and a virulent neighbour, he winds up back in Laramie, where he meets his killers at the Fireside Bar.

Working within a much-maligned genre, this particular biopic does an imaginative job of turning a symbol back into an interesting but irritating kid. Meier’s Shepard is a cuddly but quirky blond bombshell with an almost equal ability to irk and attract. Again and again, he takes stupid, self-defeating risks that test your sympathy, even as you realize he’s just another troubled teenager trying to work through a raft of problems before he’d developed the skills to deal with them.

The difference between him and most kids is that he was murdered before he could find his way home.

The film avoids blaming the family but allows them their complexity. The always fascinating Stockard Channing plays Matt’s mother with a quicksilver intelligence that almost steals the show. A firestorm of conflicting emotions, she works her way through anger, grief and denial to a reluctant justice.

By refusing to soft peddle the flaws of either parents or son, Story gives the Shepard saga a distinctly human urgency. The one thing the flick can’t do, though, is explain the actions of his murderers. For that, you’ll have to turn to The Laramie Project.

Directed by playwright Moises Kaufman (Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde), The Larmie Project looks to place and context for an explanation of the crime. Eight New York actors descend on Laramie and over a period of two years interview pretty much everyone in sight, from the car-service driver (Steve Buscemi) who drove Matt to an out-of-state gay bar to the first out lesbian on the faculty of the University Of Wyoming (Janeane Garofalo). What emerges is a portrait in unconscious malice, or, if you like, an ignorance so deep it presents as blank-faced stupidity.

Again and again, we hear that Laramie is a “live and let live” kind of place. But as a gay farmer who loves the looming windswept land says: That’s just a load of crap. “Basically, what it boils down to: If I don’t tell you I’m a fag, you won’t beat the crap out of me.”

It’s not as though everyone in Laramie is virulently anti-gay. A local theatre student acts in Angels In America despite his parents objections to the play’s homosexuality. And a number of people march for Matthew in a parade whose numbers swell as it progresses – a sight that warms the heart of a 52-year-old gay school teacher who never thought to see that kind of support from the town in which he lives.

But the town’s tolerance is a thin cloth wrapped around a very sharp knife and the knife emerges at the oddest moments, usually in the midst of a trumped up innocence. Defending her own attitude toward homos, an old woman (Frances Sternhagen, who plays Carter’s grandmother on ER) allows that people might “smack” one in a “bar situation” sometimes, but then they would just walk away, meaning, I guess, that the kindly local townsfolk usually stop short of murder.

An astute study in shifting values, Project can’t quite overcome some erratic acting and the sheer dreary flatness of its real-life dialogue. Christina Ricci has a nice turn as Matt’s lesbian friend Romaine (the Kristen Thomson role in Story) and Laura Linney has a haunting cameo as an uncomprehending homophobe.

But the film is at least a third too long, dragging badly during dramatizations of the killers’ trials. McKinney’s taped confession, played in the courtroom, is neither chilling nor revealing. By the time we hear it, we know full well that the crime is not his alone. It grew in the fertile soil of a very specific time and place.

But like Story, Project will move you to tears. Guaranteed. You’re not gay if it doesn’t.

The Matthew Shepard Story airs on CTV. The Laramie Project airs at the same time on TMN.