Angel of death
[ filmreviews ]
Richard Linklater's Bernie was based, in part, on a Texas Monthly magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth about the small, East Texas town of Carthage, whose residents expressed enormous support for a self-confessed, gay murderer, Bernie Tiede, who shot his then-companion, 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, in the back four times. So popular was Tiede and so unloved was the mean, money-hoarding Nugent, that the deed went unreported, her absence mostly unnoticed for nine months before the body was discovered - by equally greedy relatives and Nugent’s financial advisor - hidden beneath frozen meats and vegetables in her garage freezer. After a trial - whose venue was changed to a small community 47 miles away from Carthage because the prosecutor felt he could not get a fair trial, most the city’s citizens proclaiming that they were determined to acquit - Tiede was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
If this sounds to you to be unlikely material for a cross-genre comedy-musical-love story-court room drama, you’d find a champion in the real-life District Attorney, Danny Buck (played in the film by Matthew McConaughey), who argued: “This movie is not historically accurate. The movie does not tell her side of the story.” And some Carthage residents would agree, including Toni Clements who spoke out: “If it was fiction it might be funny, but this was a real person in a real town and no, I don’t think it’s funny at all.”
But you, along with the two figures I just quoted, would also be mistaken. For Linklater’s movie is not only hilarious, but a sad and moving piece of cinema that goes to the very heart of small town American life, revealing, more successfully perhaps, than most sociological or psychological studies what is at the heart of small-town community life that defines its pleasures and failures.
Bernie, a mortician by trade, may be a kind of harbinger of death, even, as Danny Buck describes him, “an angel of death,” but he is also, from the moment he sets foot on East Texas soil, a sympathetic citizen, who goes out of his way for his fellow Carthage citizens, a man who not only knows everyone by name and asks about their friends, family and illnesses, but is there in their times of joy and sorrow alike. Akin to The Music Man’s Professor Harold Hill, Bernie may have been a kind con-man, but once he insinuated himself into small town life, he created things for people to do, ways in which community folk could show their caring for one another. Directing the local Methodist Church choir, Bernie (Jack Black) lifted his own voice in song. As a director of and actor in local community theater productions (including Meredith Willson’s The Music Man), he not only helped others dance and sing out for joy, but performed with equal exultation in various roles. He advised little league baseball players and proffered financial tips to factory workers and farmers. Not only could he transform cold corpses into presentable funeral apparitions, he could eulogize the dead and sing lovely songs over their frozen forms. Most particularly, he was there to hold the arms and offer bereavements to the small town’s numerous widows. At one point, the film hints at the real Bernie Tiede’s ability to offer sexual satisfaction to some of the town’s heterosexual males (when the police later searched the real Tiede’s home, they found videotapes of him engaged in homosexual acts with married men). But so beloved was Bernie in this East Texas outpost, that many of its citizens could have cared less about the fact that he was, as one resident put it, “a little loose in the loafers.” “He only shot her four times,” one resident equivocates. He was one of them.
Through a brilliant mix of real actors’ and actual town citizens’ testimonies to Bernie, Linklater uses the first part of his film to help us to comprehend why almost everyone so loves this man, and, more importantly, how dependent small town citizens are on people who respect and support their communal values. How easy it might have been (just ask the Coen brothers) to turn this series of short interviews - particularly given the accented vernacular of the East Texas twang - into a satiric put-down of rural Americana. Instead, Linklater, obviously in love with the very eccentricities his unsophisticated characters so readily display, helps us to comprehend them as true beings desperately in need of love and social communion as the most isolated urban dweller. Bernie offers nearly everything, except a beautiful face and shapely body, that anyone might desire. He is, as several of the town residents repeat, a total “people person,” a man of, for, and created by the people. "If the people of Carthage were to make a list of people most likely to get to heaven, Bernie'd be at the top," summarizes one local.
If we realize in his readiness to please that he is himself a lonely person, so too does Bernie comprehend this in nearly everyone he meets, even in the mean-spirited Marjorie Nugent (wonderfully performed by veteran Shirley MacLaine), whose wealthy husband has just died. True to form, Marjorie at first rejects Bernie’s attempts to console her. When he comes to her door bearing flowers, she scoops them up and slams the door in his face. But nothing seems to deter this gentle man, who appears again with a gift basket of toiletries. Even the devil himself would have to invite Bernie in. Before you can shake a stick, Bernie has put a smile (slight as that may be) on Marjorie’s sour puss, and before long he is ushering her to church and concerts. Within a few weeks the couple are traveling - first class, of course - on jaunts to Russia, France, New York and elsewhere, taking in the delights of saunas, operas, and theater fare. With her help, Bernie buys nine cars, an airplane, jet skis. If the residents are busy gossiping, it is more out of incredulity than suspicion. That Bernie has transformed their very meanest citizen into a semi-human specimen is only evidence once more of his powers as a genuinely nice human being.
But the devil, unfortunately, as a Carthage resident might have expressed it, cannot change her spots. Before long, the ready-to-please Bernie has been con-verted by the stiff-necked, constantly chewing harridan into a lackey to cut her nails, iron her clothes, even clean and fold up her flowery new panties. The desperate-to-please Bernie goes along with everything until she begins to cut off his connection with all the others to whom he has already demonstrated so much love! She will clearly have him only for herself. So this non-violent lover of all mankind one day discovers himself, in a kind Jekyll and Hyde transformation, as a man possessed with the necessity of taking up a small gun she has purchased to kill an armadillo aiming it and shooting into her permanently armored hide.
With the evil villain of this piece dead, Bernie used her wealth as perhaps it should have always been: to help the community at large, supporting a Western clothing shop on main street, building a new church wing, buying homes for poor folks, awarding twin girls a birthday gift of a backyard playhouse. Bernie himself continues to live in a small, mortgaged house, paying his monthly instalments for his run-down car late.
In the final vicious court-room scenes, played out before jurors whom one Carthage resident quips “have more tattoos than teeth,” the salacious cowboy booted and Stetson-hated County District Attorney twists Bernie’s good-willed intoxication with everyday life into that of a suave city-slicker’s pre-mediated acts, based on the fact that Bernie can even pronounce the name of the musical he has seen in New York, Les Misérables, and that he vaguely knows that white wine goes with fish. It is enough to make a grown man cry!
The glue to Linklater’s quite amazing moral screed is Jack Black’s near flawless and notably subtle recreation of Bernie Tiede. Instead of his usual naughty-boy antics, his anarchic defiance of society, this time round Black immerses himself thoroughly into a character who, while appearing as a model citizen, reveals the dark hollows of the American heart. As the credits began to scroll across the screen (which, incidentally, should not be missed) the three women behind me verbally concurred that Jack Black should be nominated for an Oscar for his performance. And, although I doubt the Academy might ever be so clairvoyant in their sensibilities, I must admit that the thought had just a few moments earlier crossed my mind.