A Texan Burial

Bernie (2012)     4.5/5

Directed by Richard Linklater (Millennium Entertainment)

In 1996, 39-year-old Bernie Tiede shot 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in the back with a rifle. Four times. This case of first-degree murder occurred in Carthage, Texas, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one soul in that small town who wouldn’t fully defend Bernie’s blatantly criminal act. Why? Richard Linklater, a Texas native himself, and acclaimed director of both independent and mainstream fare, asks many questions of Carthage’s real-life subjects in his fusion of documentary and fictional, dark comedy, but they all come back to “why.” What motivates a human being to take the life of another, and why would some be so compelled as to dismiss the enactment of the legal system with this instance, in particular? Linklater, who arguably made his masterwork with Dazed and Confused, and who directed Jack Black in the acclaimed comedy School of Rock, makes a film very different from anything else he has done, and needless to say, coaches a performance out of Black that is nothing less than exceptional.

There is no doubt that this is a personal project for Linklater, examining the mechanics of small town life, and by combining staged scenes with actual interview footage (in such a way that we may not know who are actors and who are Carthage citizens), the audience is invited to understand who Bernie was, and why people loved him, before we see him commit a terrible crime. By doing so, we are able to empathize with Bernie, the woman he murdered, and the people who surrounded him in daily life, while examining our own values in a way that could only be applied otherwise had we lived in Carthage at that particular time. This is all thanks to Linklater’s grand experiment in narrative, taking a true story, proving it is true through first-hand accounts, and allowing it to fluctuate by staging scenes that are bitingly funny. For any who are curious, this is how you take true events and transform them into compelling entertainment.

On that particular note, forget everything you know about Jack Black. His performance here is impeccable; we never quite know when his character is acting, when he is compelled by unquenchable, psychological desires, or when he finally may snap. Despite being an actor in a sea of real Texas folk, we always believe that Black is Bernie, the assistant “funeral director” who cannot help but be the most popular man in Carthage. He is outgoing, ridiculously friendly, exceedingly generous, and to some extent, compulsively loyal to his Lord and savior. Yet Bernie has closeted habits differing from those that garner love from his neighbors; he may have homosexual tendencies, and as observed by almost everyone, a knack for hanging around rich, elderly women, especially after they have lost a loved one. It appears as though Bernie is simply being the caring individual we have come to know, but underneath his uncontrollable need to be friendly, is there something else? Something darker, perhaps. Something that explains why Bernie is so actively involved in community theatre.

After the death of her husband, Bernie came to care for Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an old woman known by the town to be an antisocial shrew, even before she become a widow. In fact, she appears to be the exact opposite of Bernie. Maybe that is what draws Bernie to her; out of all the little old ladies he has consoled, never has he seen one so lonely. Despite not being attracted to her in a conventional sense, he soon learns to love her …. and spend all her money. Marjorie appears to not have a problem with this; she has finally found one to share a life with her, her siblings and children maintaining their distance. But that’s when it happens. Marjorie traps Bernie, she prevents him from enacting the extroverted activities that compensate for his introverted anxieties. She claims him as her own, jealous of the town’s love for him. And despite loving him equally, she treats him as a possession within her own prison of loneliness. And as quickly as the awful thought runs through Bernie’s troubled mind, she lies face down on the floor of her garage, dead as a doornail.

In a hilarious, caricatured performance, Matthew McConaughey plays District Attorney Danny Buck, who simply knows something’s up. Bernie goes through great lengths to prove that Marjorie is still alive, spending just as much of her money as he did before, but a good percentage of the time, using it to benefit his own town; a continued penance for his sins. It would be a crime to reveal any more of the film; in fact, I have probably said too much already. This is what you need to know – this is an incredibly well-acted and directed film, one quite different from any before it, and so far, the best I have seen to be released this year. I don’t know if the film is ever quite as funny as Linklater hoped it could be (he has even been quoted saying that on paper, his co-written script “[read] boring”), but the laughs are certainly there, and for fans of dark humor, there is no shortage of morbid ones. Much of the humor (and tragic sadness) is drawn from Black’s conflicted protagonist, in addition to the eccentric folk who let their voices be heard along the way.

There is a certain subtlety to Bernie; a cheerful outlook on a horrid incident, an empathy for its protagonist but a certain shadiness as to what his motivations might be. Was this an act of impulse, or a task slowly brewing in Bernie’s subconscious, or even conscious mind? This is what makes the film such a tremendous study of character. One of the film’s main criticisms has been its lack of Marjorie’s side of the story; the idea that the shooting might have arisen from Bernie’s haphazard usage of the old woman’s finances, that which enabled him to live the high-class lifestyle that he had always wanted to live. The film certainly doesn’t dismiss that possibility, although it is more interested in exploring another one. The intent of Bernie is not to allow us to make a judgement, the main one being whether Marjorie’s abuse of Bernie justified him to kill her. Any sane person would say this is false – murder is murder. The opportunity to make this judgement is certainly open to you, but Linklater would rather use his fictional/nonfictional hybrid to show you something you are not used to seeing, something that goes beyond a simple question of right and wrong.

He shows you these people, where they live, and how they see the world. He then challenges you to understand how they feel about Bernie, a man who has made such a positive impact on their lives, and who they believe should be forgiven, maybe not by the legal system, but by a higher power. But here on Earth, the legal system is all we have. So to the dismay of many, Bernie faces punishment. Richard Linklater dives into a fascinating story, his uniquely structured film allowing us to take away the most we can, that which he felt could be conveyed most efficiently through a cinematic medium (the director originally obtained his source information through an article in Texas Monthly, written by Skip Hollandsworth, who aided Linklater with the script).

Bernie is not for all tastes, and even divided the good people of Carthage. I mean, if one of your townspeople was murdered, would you appreciate a comedic film encroaching upon the event? Yet Linklater’s accomplishment transcends comedy, and not just because of its dramatic elements. He becomes a storyteller of a rare sort. Harnessing one of the year’s boldest (and funniest) performances, he weaves together Shakespearean tragedy, humor both cheery and dark, Southern quirkiness, and a heartfelt respect for the power of small community. Across America, and especially beyond our borders, odd stories like this occur every day. Filmmakers like Linklater are determined to tell them. He does so not only through his own voice, but those of the people who were intimately involved. So sue him.

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