The Rick-trospective: Bernie

Movies Features

In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.

Mark Twain said that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Thank goodness this maxim didn’t deter Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth from adapting Hollandsworth’s 1998 article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” in the screenplay for Bernie. Interspersed with interviews with real citizens of Carthage, Texas (along with a few actors playing citizens, just to keep viewers on their toes), Bernie gives you the feeling that these people are collectively telling you this strange story. Watching the film is like visiting East Texas as a traveller and being regaled by the locals with a modern tall tale.

Bernie Tiede’s story, after all, doesn’t make much sense on its surface. The nicest, most beloved man in town (an unlikely combination of mortician, showman, volunteer and philanthropist) murders the richest, least-liked woman in town. In the aftermath, the district attorney requests a change of venue for the trial because he feels Bernie couldn’t get a fair one in Carthage. Normally, such moves are made when the defendant is despised in the original venue, but it was feared that no one in Carthage would want to convict Bernie!

And even though we the audience bear witness to Bernie shooting his elderly companion Marjorie Nugent, we love him, too. And that’s all thanks to Jack Black giving what is by far the best performance of his career. He exudes equanimity from his every pore, matching it with a needle-precise sense of primness. His every gesture is a florid mini-performance. Early in the film, Tiede demonstrates the proper way to prepare a dead body for a viewing, and he shows how even the smallest detail carries great weight with him. He’s almost never without an ingratiating smile on his face, and there’s a hop-skip bounce in his voice that can easily make that smile contagious. And when that cheeriness cracks as it’s put against Marjorie’s unrelenting unpleasantness, Black carries Bernie’s dark deeds with a manic, unsettling desperation. It’s not uncommon for crime-related films to ask us to sympathize with killers, but rarely are we squared into such a compromised antagonist’s side as we are here.

Props to Shirley MacLaine for delivering Marjorie’s sour cantankery in a believable way, without coming across as a cartoon character. And rounding out the main cast is Matthew McConaughey, kicking off what we are now calling his “McConaissance.” Cocky district attorney Danny Buck Davidson finds his match in Bernie, flummoxed by his unrelenting niceness and the love his townsfolk have for him. Davidson is technically the voice of sanity, reminding viewers that Bernie is a killer and that, you know, we do have laws against such things in this country. But the moral universe of this film is such an odd one that Davidson is flipped into the position of antagonist, and he ultimately resorts to cheap class politicking to turn a jury against Bernie.

Of course, the real major supporting character in the film is Carthage itself, embodied by the numerous townsfolk who volunteer their thoughts to the camera. (Who are they addressing? An imaginary documentary crew? News reporters? Linklater? The answer, of course, is us.) From the man who explains the finer points of Texas geography to the woman who asserts that the story told about Bernie was worse than it really was because “he only shot her four times, not five,” the film is infused with local color. It’s not hicksploitation; it’s hickcelebration! Bernie is possibly the warmest, most lovable movie about cold-blooded murder that’s yet been made. And Linklater was possibly the only one who could pull that off.

21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.

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