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Movie Review: BERNIE (2012)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • September 12, 2012 • Start the Discussion!

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The Positively True Adventures of the Convicted Texas Widow-Murdering Mortician

Too often, people cannot believe that he – of all people! – could commit murder. They knew him! Laughed with him! Never saw it in him. That is the buzz coming from the good people of Carthage, Texas over their beloved Bernie Tiede – the real life subject of Richard Linklater’s bizarre crime story.

Teaming up again after their success in the tailor-made School of Rock (2003), Jack Black plays Bernie as though he was sprinkled in sugar. Bernie is a thoroughly spiffy and effeminate man. He is all roundness emanating a soft, optimistic voice. His mustache must tickle his lips to smile so sweetly. Working as a mortician, he tends to the deceased so they look their very best for the funeral.*

He is even better with the living: Socializing like mad, keeping friends, and directing upbeat church plays. After the funerals he organizes, he often checks in on the surviving attendees with baskets of goodies. This is how he makes an impression on Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the wealthiest widow whose renowned meanness is temporarily subverted by Bernie’s goodwill.

The nicest thing you could call Mrs. Nugent is the Wicked Witch of the West. She is to Carthage what Mrs. Deagle is to Kingston Falls (the East) in Gremlins (1984). Miss MacLaine steps up beyond her snarky old lady roles and stomps down with a genuine maliciousness that British actresses like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench have cornered.

It is thanks to Bernie that Mrs. Nugent begins to really enjoy herself and her money. Bernie accompanies her to operas and traveling abroad. The town gradually comes to see them as an odd item. From the inside, Mrs. Nugent’s possessive hold over Bernie tightens, thus isolating him from community. The only body he preps so skillfully happens to be still alive.

Would it be too cute to have Bernie reading Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne about the caregiver of that stair-rolling bitch Vera Donovan? Most disturbing is how someone who tries so hard to be nice commits horrible, immediate violence. It redefines and justifies the term blackout. If ever Bernie should snap, he would try and tie himself back together with a granny knot afterward. And he would be sincerely sorry.

It is very insidious of Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth to set our hearts on Bernie, the killer. Everyone in town swears they would not convict him on trial. If only they didn’t say that so many to Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), their sleazy District Attorney topped with a cowboy hat. Then maybe Bernie would have had a prayer.

One of my favourite contradictions in a story is when someone very likable is wrong and that other person who is just so loathsome and… is in the right. It’s what happened in Shattered Glass (2003) where that sour New Republic editor just had to make that charming fraud Stephen Glass cry. And here it is happening again in Bernie.

If only Danny Buck didn’t smile so smugly whenever he boasted about all the deadbeats he trapped so elaborately. If only we could believe that the justice system meant more to him than showboating for his political career. Oblivious to his weak likeability, it must dumbstruck him why so many people are rooting for a man who shot an old woman “four times in the back!”

If Bernie’s charm is so infectious outside of the screen, is there any hope for a moral compass? More troubling is that Bernie makes his community happier. Especially with all of those generous donations and extravagant gifts he gives out. Sure, it’s all Mrs. Nugent’s money, but she was a greedy capitalist and a miser! It is amazing how such a subversive attack on that most liberal value called charity can make for an indirect defense for it. All set in the so-called red state.

The ghost of Mrs. Nugent haunts poor Bernie now and then when enjoying his luxurious lifestyle. It was the same deal for the husband who married rich, yet had that pesky mistress who was going to blow the lid in Match Point (2005). Match Point was ruthlessly heartless in its depiction of a man who made peace with his crime and told off the ghosts of those he maimed. Bernie does not have that luxury. His last bout of penance as well as his sentimentality and professionalism is what ultimately got him caught.

In A Place in the Sun (1951), the dramatization asks if someone desires the death of a wet rag who stands in the way of the sweet life (“la dolce vita!”) and that person dies inadvertently, should the would-be killer still be punished? For Bernie, it’s a question of punishing someone when taking advantage of a position to do good deeds.

Another inspiration by Linklater is the on-camera interviews of the real townspeople who could tell you how they would have disposed of Mrs. Nugent’s remains and not gotten caught. A less wise filmmaker would have gotten those roles cast. It is so absorbing getting sucked up in this world. Like Linklater’s Slacker (1991) and Waking Life (2001), we drift from one to next. Only they’re all talking about Bernie.

Delivering his speel to us viewers for an imaginary documentary, Buck merges seamlessly like a chameleon among the rest of his constituents, which is a testament to McConaughey’s talent. Back in 2002, McConaughey was heading toward becoming one of the great American character actors with his stellar work in Frailty (2002) and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2002). After a ten-year hiatus, he is back fulfilling this (rotten) plum of a role for his friend Linklater from back when they were Dazed and Confused (1993). McConaughey looks like and even channels the slickly drawl of Gary Cole’s menacing dweebs. So much so that the direction “Do Gary Cole” must have been said on set.

So much of the film’s structure owes a great deal to the work of Errol Morris who specializes in getting fascinating oddballs from a wrongly accused felon on death row to Robert S. McNamara. Morris must have thrown a fit when he found out about Bernie Tiede – a prime candidate for the Interrotron. I can’t help but imagine Morris and Linklater hunkered together in the dark deciding who gets to tackle which Southern outlaw: Bernie Tiede or Joyce McKinney of the Manacled Mormon scandal, which Morris did document in Tabloid (2011). Now there’s a double-feature.

Thanks to Bernie, it is one of the latest movies to muck up my perception of what is right and wrong. A terrific challenge for the conscience as well as one of Richard Linklater’s very best. It is also awfully funny.

*Keep Molly Parker (Kissed, 1996) away!

BERNIE (2012) Trailer

CREDITS Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater. Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman, Richard Robichaux, Rick Dial, Brandan Smith, and Larry Jack Dotson. Original Music by Graham Reynolds. Cinematography by Dick Pope. Film Editing by Sandra Adair. Production Design by Bruce Curtis. Art Direction by Rodney Becker. Costume Design by Kari Perkins.

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