Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent (left), along with dramatic recreations
USA (104 mi) 2011 d: Richard Linklater
I’d never seen a movie told from the perspective of a group of gossips, but in this case it seemed like the proper narrative technique that would reveal everything you could ever really know about the town and the people involved. —Richard Linklater, director
The American South continues to be a subject of fascination, where even at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, three new films prominently featuring the South were represented there, Jeff Nichols’ MUD (2012), shot in Arkansas, also Benh Zeitlin's BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012) and Lee Daniels’ THE PAPERBOY (2012), both shot in Louisiana, with two of these films also starring Matthew McConaughey, who has apparently become synonymous with the face of the South. Even documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog took his camera team to Conroe, Texas in Into the Abyss, a film that explores the ramifications of the death penalty, where the state had no problem executing someone with a lifelong history of untreated mental illness, interviewed a week before his execution where there’s not an ounce of comprehension about what he’d done. Richard Linklater was born in Houston, Texas, but relocated to Austin, where he often makes use of the state of Texas in his films. Pulling a story ripped from the headlines, based on a Skip Hollandsworth article the director read in The Texas Monthly, January 1998, Midnight in the Garden of East Texas., BERNIE is a highly satiric, comically lampooning, Christopher Guest style faux documentary about a real event, using fictionalized observers who continually offer wry comments, a Greek chorus, known as the Gossips by Linklater, authentic townspeople that knew the real Bernie who were used as extras, completely indistinguishable from professional actors, who are seen throughout savagely discussing a scandalous event that supposedly shocked the tiny East Texas town of Carthage, Texas, population 6,779. This is a Christian, Bible-belt community where everyone knows everybody else, where there are few secrets to hide, but one thing they could all agree on was what a hateful woman Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is, a cantankerous 81-year old widow who generally despises everyone. The commentary is so odious that all MacLaine has to do is scrunch her face into a perpetual scowl, otherwise known as a prune face, guaranteed to get laughs without even uttering a word. Still, Nugent is exquisitely played and is perfecftly believable as an eccentric old hag that probably hides all her money behind the wallpaper in the walls of her immense country manor filled with wild game animal heads with antlers mounted on the wall, which reflect the manly presence of her former husband, a filthy rich tightwad of a banker who left her everything.
The title character, however, is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the carefully groomed assistant funeral director who leads the choir in church every week, a beloved figure in the community because he’s always nice to frail old ladies, a man who takes seriously the meticulous aspects of preparing the human remains for a funeral, making them look so natural, known for finding just the right poetic expressions in describing how the deceased finally met their demise, always making it sound so comfortable, often singing the favorite hymn of the deceased to commemorate the occasion. As is his custom, he follows up with visits to the family of the deceased after funerals as a way of checking up on them, but also bringing anything they may need, His visits to Nugent are met with a quick slam of the door, but his persistence pays off, as eventually she lets him in the door, where they hit it off splendidly, where he even persuades her to rejoin the church, which she had been avoiding for years. Bernie teaches Sunday school, coaches Little League, dedicates his life to charity work, and even directs and performs in the community musical theater, where he can be seen triumphantly marching while performing the lead role in The Music Man, which, interestingly enough, is about a conman who travels from town to town as an always upbeat marching band instructor selling merchandise he doesn’t have, taking the cash and breaking hearts, before moving on to the next town. But Bernie doesn’t have a conniving or contentious bone in his body, always lending a helping hand, the kind of guy who just can’t say no to anyone. Black does an excellent job in the role, wonderfully singing his own hymns, creating a sycophantic, gay-leaning, asexual character that is beloved by all, the exact opposite of MacLaine’s Marjorie Nugent, who remains the embodiment of evil, whose own family attempted to sue her for money, so she hasn’t spoken to any of them in four years.
Meanwhile, Bernie and Marjorie travel around the world together, strictly as traveling companions, though rumors suggest otherwise, where Bernie’s highest attribute becomes his ability to befriend the one person in town no one else could tolerate, where Linklater fills the screen with plenty of distinctive Texas character, including a sheriff, a hardnosed, crime sniffing district attorney (Matthew McConaughey, yet again), along with an oddball assortment of friends and neighbors that comprise a socio-demographic of the region, including the “cousin-countin’ rednecks” in the next county. No one seems surprised when Nugent turns up missing except her stockbroker, who is missing his commissions, as no one really talked to her anyway, and Bernie goes to great lengths pretending she’s still alive, continually suggesting she suffered a minor stroke and was not up to seeing people. But all that changes when they discover her body in a storage freezer, where Bernie readily admits to the crime, claiming Nugent forced him into becoming her personal slave, continually making non-stop demands 24 hours a day, constantly interrupting whatever he was doing with trumped up personal emergencies, until he had no life left at all except to serve her every whim and demand, claiming he just snapped, shooting her four times. Suddenly with a frozen corpse on display, this twisted tale takes on another dimension, as her hypocritical family arrives on the scene in a tearful state, and everyone wants a piece of her estate, including the government. Bernie, on the other hand, is facing life imprisonment, a staggering prospect considering he befriended the town’s meanest citizen, whose death is something many in the community would have paid handsomely for. The film veers into the dark social commentary of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955), interestingly enough also starring a young Shirley MacLaine, where the town not only accepts Bernie’s murderous actions but embrace him for giving so much of the deceased’s money away to charitable causes. The film is never as interesting without MacLaine as it is with her in it, though she has a near wordless role, but her screen presence is enormous, used to wonderful comic effect. Something of an affectionate love letter to the East Texas region where Linklater grew up, the director puts the real face of Bernie onscreen near the end, where behind all the levity, his life is a testament to the sadness and real human tragedy that underlies this story.