SXSW Film Review – Bernie
The beginning of Richard Linklater’s film Bernie (2011) states that the events that take place were based on a true story. “Uh huh,” I thought, “as ‘true’ as the next movie playing every other week in theaters.” But to my surprise, the story that we are presented with really did happen, in the small town of Carthage, Texas in the nineties. The characters that are in play really do (and did) exist, with a number of photographs and videos provided as evidence. Usually, these end credit montages showing the real people the movie is based on don’t always work for me, but it did this time. The people, the situations, and the implications of what was involved feel just exaggerated enough that I thought there was no way that this was an accurate portrayal. But it was. In fact, some of the very people in the movie play themselves, blending in so easily that you could almost call this a semi-documentary.
And that’s probably the best place to start. Trailers and advertising would suggest that the movie is a crime comedy, but I would say that that is an incorrect description. There are no laugh out loud moments in the movie. Whatever the film does have that is humorous is based more on behavior. The quirkiness, the attitudes, and the beliefs of the people in Carthage are what provide the offbeat nature of the piece, much in the same way that a Cohen brothers film has characters that work in the same fashion. The film is clearly about the people of the town, and that is why Linklater uses them as a whole to provide a narrative viewpoint throughout the storyline. We meet workers, school teachers, churchgoers, community officials, husbands, wives, and so on and so forth, each detailing their own account of a crime and trial that happened within their own community, and how it affected each of them. Each interviewee is a colorful speaker, not afraid to give their own opinion and speak openly about the people involved.
The story revolves around one of their own: a mild-mannered gentleman by the name of Bernie Tiede, played by Jack Black. Bernie, as he is described, was arguably the nicest man you could possibly meet. A local mortician, Bernie took it upon himself to make sure that every recently deceased person was taken cared of in the most delicate and careful way possible, from the clothes they wore to the coffin they were buried in. He cared so much for other people that he would go out of his way to make sure that relatives handled the process well, even to the point of visiting them at home and bringing them gifts. Soon, he would become well known in the community, taking part in toy drives, fairs, church activities—you name it, he was a part of it. He even helped direct a number of local theater shows; the man was an endless well of good charity. As a performance, Jack Black is restrained just enough to be convincing, barely grazing the line between subtle and over the top. Compared to his other performances, this is certainly one with him attempting to expand his range, and in a good way.
It would only be a matter of time before Bernie’s kindness would be taken advantage of. Enter the second important character in the film, Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. If Bernie is as good a person as can possibly be, then Marjorie is the complete opposite and more. She is controlling, paranoid, demanding, temperamental, and just as bad as can possibly be. Family members rarely visit her and all the residents of Carthage know not to mess with her in any way. In fact, Marjorie is presented in such a negative way that it’s almost a detriment to the film; it feels as though she is a one-dimensional character used only for the purpose of advancing Bernie’s arc. Bernie, as kind as he is, makes an effort to be friendly with her and connect. Bernie’s determination is unwavering; where many people would give up on Marjorie, he keeps chugging along in his usual plucky manner. Marjorie clearly appreciates this and opens up to Bernie in ways she probably never did with her own family. There is a kind of courtship between them—even though Bernie doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who would act upon his sexual impulses, and Marjorie just being too old for him anyway, they do seem to become close friends. So close, in fact, that she includes him in her will. And this is where things take a turn for the interesting.
The film presents a clash of two opposite heads: the goodness of Bernie, and the badness of Marjorie. She quickly starts to take him for granted, ordering him around, offending him, demanding his time and attention constantly. She even closes her gate, refusing to let him leave her property. Her constant barrage of bickering and negativity wears thin on our good-natured protagonist. Sooner or later, one of them will succumb to the other. It is no surprise, then, that Marjorie would mysteriously disappear, with Bernie becoming the prime suspect. Whether or not Bernie actually committed the crime is beside the point; the fascinating aspect regarding Marjorie’s disappearance is how it affects the townsfolk and their relationship with Bernie. That is the strength of the film, with the debate about Bernie and how he was involved with Marjorie seemingly vanishing into thin air. Bernie is presented as such a good person, even going to the point of donating most of his money to the community, that prosecuting district attorney Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughy) had to move the trial to a different city for a more fair and balanced jury. Some residents begged and pleaded with Davidson to let Bernie go, even saying that if they were part of the jury they would vote for an acquittal. Others were so convinced of his innocence that they didn’t care what kind of evidence or testimony were presented—no way could a man that kind-hearted possibly be responsible.
That is the main question that Bernie presents. Is it okay for a person who has given so much to others to simply be forgiven for a serious crime that they may be connected to? Marjorie was not a kind person to anyone, and many of the residents of the town quickly admit that they will not miss her; but is that enough to let Bernie go? This is explored in the second half of the film, which to me is the stronger part. Linkater has given us a film that on the surface seems to be a black comedy, but for those who go into it looking for that, they may walk out a bit disappointed. However, I do think that the film is more engaging and cleverer than what may be initially perceived. It examines people and social perceptions, and how those perceptions alter the interpretations of the law to fit their own framework. The film is not perfect, but much better than what I thought it would be. And given that it is in fact based on a true story, that makes it all the more fascinating.
Final Grade: B