April 24, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


A minor Richard Linklater film is better than no Linklater at all. Bernie reteams Austin, Texas' finest with Jack Black eight years after their major-studio breakthrough School of Rock. Linklater's talent for normalizing potentially over-the-top material is very well-suited for mainstream fare; the key shot of School of Rock comes when Black yields to the kids in his class—all bugging him to perform for them—and launches into impassioned song. A hack would've cut constantly between Black's mugging and the students' goggle-eyed reactions, but Linklater reduces this scene to one simple shot. Black sings as the camera slowly tracks back down the classroom aisle, recording his performance without cueing the audience how to respond.

Rock was a hit, but Linklater's 2006 Hollywood follow-up, a remake of The Bad News Bears, was a bust. Since then, financing for the kind of modest films the director specializes in has dried up, and Linklater's talked with wistful frustration in interviews about leaving Texas for a second European career. His first narrative feature since 2008's Me and Orson Welles, Bernie reconstructs the true story of Bernie Tiede (played here by Black), a Carthage, Texas (population: 6,700) funeral home employee with a reputation for exceptional kindness. One widow who benefited from his attention was Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who'd alienated everyone in Carthage, TX with rudeness and stinginess. After her husband died, Bernie gave her his coat at the funeral and showed up a few days later to check how she was doing. He became her nearly-live-in companion, until her demands became too much and he killed her.


The story is juicy, but the film proves lethargic when focusing on Bernie and Marjorie's ill-fated relationship. Black and MacLaine are aces together, but when Bernie begins to show remorse (tears, sad music), the emotional impact simply isn't there. The framing device is what holds the story together, as local gossips weigh in via staged talking heads. Even if the title cards are a little too cute ("What you're fixin' to see is a true story"), said interview footage is so utterly convincing that it's hard to believe it isn't documentary footage. It's a peanut gallery of actual actors, albeit many of them in-the-know Texas residents providing character testimony for the accused by noting "he could remember your son was at Texas and your daughter was at A&M."

These kinds of trivialities loom large in small-town life. Sarah Palin did everyone a favor when she proclaimed there to be a "Real America," giving a label to semi-rural communities in which the ultimate proof of moral fiber is politeness to one's neighbors. The dark joke of the film is that Carthage rallied behind Tiede, even though his guilt was unquestionable, simply because Nugent was a notoriously unkind lady. Bernie is both a love letter to and repudiation of the kind of city that's colorful but reprehensibly judgmental in equal measure.


The dramatic segments are comparatively bloodless alongside all the idiomatic chatter. Bridging the two modes is Matthew McConaughey as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the only character who's both an interviewee and a narrative player. He nearly destroys everything by appearing to be mugging his way through an entirely different movie, possibly one directed by Christopher Guest. (For sheer authenticity, he's shamed by his real-life mother Kay as one of Carthage's cattier, cougar-like residents.)

Linklater has tidied up the quotes from the copious documentation on the case, including the Texas Monthly article by co-writer Skip Hollingsworth that served as the film's basis, in which one of Carthage's old biddies is cited as asking her delivery man (in 1998!), "Shall I introduce you as Negro, black or colored?" Many locals regarded Tiede as having atoned for his homosexuality by virtue of good community deeds. "That dog don't hunt," one notes during the film, while another says (straight out of Hollingsworth's article) that he was "light in the loafers." For whatever reason—and you could guess—the Carthage police department deemed it a necessary part of their investigation to find tapes of Tiede having sex with other men (although at least some of these tapes were German porn he financed, a detail left out of the film). At one point, Bernie nearly confesses his crime during lunch, asking a woman if it's possible for someone who's seemingly good to be a completely different person from how they're perceived. She instantly assures him no one cares what goes on in his bedroom—but, of course, all of Carthage actually does.


At least two of Nugent's relatives have recently written articles recalling exactly how nasty Nugent was. With his typical aversion towards strong villains, Linklater leaves out some of the more pungent details, but otherwise hews remarkably close to recorded dialogue and events. This must be one of the most faithful true-crime movies ever made, putting the lie to the director's bullet-point sales description of this being an "east Texas Fargo." Verisimilitude, in and of itself, isn't necessarily laudable, but as an exercise in seeing how close imaginative reconstruction can be to journalism, Bernie's ambitions are surprisingly as big as Tiede's personality.

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Posted by ahillis at April 24, 2012 10:41 AM