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Can Monday Movies Tell You, We Are Not Fond of Cremations

Bernie is based on a true crime story, first told by Skip Hollandsworth in 1998 and rehashed in the New York Times by the victim’s nephew a few months ago. In the hands of Richard Linklater, directing Jack Black and Shirley Maclaine from a script he wrote with Hollandsworth, it becomes a wonderfully odd bird of a movie, a documentary murder comedy that sets a small ensemble of actors to play in a garden of locals playing themselves.

Bernie Tiede first came to the East Texas small town of Carthage as an assistant funeral director. He quickly established himself as a superstar assistant funeral director, and soon after that as an all-around local celebrity, directing community theater and singing in church. He was an especially able hand with the “D.L.O.L.’s” — the dear little old ladies whom he met in the course of burying their husbands. And he became the especially close friend of one of them, Marjorie Nugent, a widely reviled sourpuss whose vacations Bernie joined, whose affairs Bernie managed, and whose own freezer Bernie hid her in after discharging an “armadillo gun” into her back.

There’s nothing common about this story, and it’s testament to Linklater’s sure hand with Texas oddballs and odd balls of yarn that it never feels slack or unengaging. For most of the movie, the actors perform in short, gestural scenes, three- or four-line interactions — most of MacLaine’s lines aren’t lines at all, just frowns dripping with what some call “pure cussedness.” The actors provide a connective tissue between the documentary scenes, interviews with people who knew the real-life Bernie and Marjorie. It’s a particular form of documentary, a long way from vérité. It’s probably closer to say that Linklater has cast these townsfolk to play themselves. (Indeed, the third and fourth quotes in Hollandsworth’s article appear right next to one another in the film.)

The Carthage cast goes a long way towards establishing the town as an organic presence, functionally a character. While the story ostensibly travels outside of Carthage — Marjorie takes Bernie on vacation to Russia — Linklater amplifies the geographic unity of the story by making their vacation photos obvious Photoshops and making no efforts to disguise Carthage in the occasional scene set somewhere else (instead of, say, using a camera filter on the same environment to suggest another locale.) The movie’s artifice feels a lot like that Photoshopping — Black and MacLaine have been dropped into this organic environment to restage these true events. That’s not at all to say their performances are hollow or unpersuasively stagey; Black in particular is perfectly cast, his clown restrained but not effaced, giving a sense of how Bernie’s inner light might have captivated Carthage.

After establishing this contrast between the main players and the rest of the town, there’s a stumble when McConaughey first appears as the D.A. who would eventually charge Bernie. (His mother sits in, hilariously, for one of the townspeople.) But his ultimate role is deeply satisfying, as the only man in Carthage who believes that murder should be punished, pecked to death by Bernie’s fans who either can’t believe he did it or are glad he did.

There’s an interesting theme about class and sexuality in the story–for the people of Carthage who know and love Bernie, his effeminacy (the movie never plainly confirms it, but the New York Times writer says Bernie is gay) can’t be twisted into a motive. But when the DA gets the trial moved to San Augustine, which one of the townsfolk describes as “let’s dig a hole in the backyard and cook something, throw another tire on the fire,” where a jury with “more tattoos than teeth” is empaneled, there’s no more sympathy for Bernie. When the DA rope-a-dopes Bernie into correcting his pronunciation of “Les Miserables” from the stand, all is lost. And Bernie’s supporters, who come fifty miles for him and picnic on the grass outside the courthouse, know it.

What did you see? Did it have it coming?


August 13, 2012 - Posted by | Monday Movies | , , , , ,


  1. I saw Bourne Legacy, and it was a pretty big step down from the first three. It was still fun, but it was weird seeing the Bourne replacement having somewhat normal interactions with people.

    It also doesn’t work as well without the before/after amnesia thing. Aaron Cross only stopped being a “sin eater” because they stopped him.

    Comment by mattintoledo | August 13, 2012

  2. i didn’t watch any movies last month, even on youtube, at least last three weeks, i don’t think, netflix is not sending anything yet though i changed the address
    i watched the last time “Wit”, about a dying from c-r english prof woman, how she rethinks her life and regrets how she was such a too principled hard teacher and person to die all alone, it was okay, but there were many errors, in the end it became all very believable, a good actress, i like her
    about her principles, that like confirmed my suspicion that it’s better to be kind than principled, my friend, a hospital director back home, he is my classmate btw, one of his duties is to give or not give permissions to waive autopsy, so he being a principled science man always fights so hard when families come to him to ask for that permission, for whatever superstition they would want to avoid the procedure bc it is believed the deceased’s future rebirth will be disturbed and so on, for me what are those percentages of work done, if only not very grave misdiagnosis, not that many people ask for that waiver too, those grieving poor people before me believing in whatever they are believing, i wouldn’t be able to refuse them, but a good thing nobody will make me a hospital chief and that is a very wrong thing for me to say, of course
    the young doctor in the movie, her former student, was annoying, how he can be a doctor that inattentive and sloppy when she brags that he is brilliant through her teachings, and his cancer is awesome! cells keep growing no matter what! exclamations were stupid, if to not change media in time the cells will die very quickly, surely one never has grown any c-r cell culture, the screenwriter or his medical adviser
    but her nurse i disliked even more, she was supposed to portray a very humane and compassionate being, very cliche, a black woman so she should be so like, and she just didn’t measure up to that, there was a scene, the patient shared with her her ice lollipop, so the nurse discards it half-eaten into the trash can after obtaining from her DNR, very rude imo, discarding the last thing she shared with other human being when she was still looking! but maybe that meant nothing to both of them, just a lollipop, and i am just too oversensitive
    then she takes care of the unconscious now patient so very carefully, massaging and smiling, after flirting with the young doc, if she didn’t flirt must be she wouldn’t have been as careful, humans are so selfish because i suppose
    in the end she fights very hard for her patient’s DNR will, as if it is the greatest benevolence, but maybe it is, maybe dying person feels only too much pain through it if feels anything yet and it’s sure better to not resuscitate if terminal illness, a sad movie it was overall

    Comment by read | August 13, 2012

  3. I loved Bernie, and especially loved that it gave Jack Black a role that used his charisma while actually building his character. I do think it’s a strange game that Linklater is playing with our desire for factual stories. Mostly, it’s more honest than other “minor biopics” “based on a true story”: maybe because of the Great Straight Actors Playing Gay similarity, the comparison that comes to mind is I Love You, Phillip Morris, or heck, why not Beginners –yes, I have a lit-tle fixation on Ewan MacGregor, I have it mostly under control, moving on–; and if Jim Carrey couldn’t quite get the right tone in Phillip Morris, it’s almost as if not just Linklater but also the real people of Carthage were disciplining Jack Black, helping him find the right tone by literally inter-acting with him. But as you say, they weren’t being themselves, they were playing themselves, and occasionally it was noticeable that they were playing themselves from over ten years ago, which added an element of creepiness to the fact-fiction game. Another clever Linklater use of reality: the sequel Before Sunset to Before Sunrise with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, where you can see what a decade of chain-smoking has done to Ethan Hawke’s complexion. Did i ever tell you that I’ve convinced myself that I met the gay black guy from the real-life-anecdote that John Guare based Six Degrees of Separation on, on a bus from New York to Chicago, in 1999 or so?

    Comment by poc2666 | August 16, 2012

  4. i’ve found this article to be very relevant to what i ‘ve been thinking about DNRs, the practice of obtaining those consents as if like sneakingly from a patient, already so too tired and weak battling the deadly disease itself, and indifferency of that, professional “compassion” to what is life, one and only, for everyone
    i think it’s very unethical to push that decision to a patient

    Comment by read | September 4, 2012

  5. oops, it requires login to read, if it’s downloadable should have linked to the pdf i guess

    Comment by read | September 4, 2012

  6. indifference,
    good, it’s unreadable on the phone only

    Comment by read | September 4, 2012

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