My belief that Richard Linklater remains America’s most underestimated filmmaker has been reinforced by the reception thus far to his new film Bernie, treated as either a failed Jack Black comedy or a movie that has not made up its mind about whether it wants to be fiction or documentary, funny or serious. Which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the dominant influence on American film criticism is no longer Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael, but early 20th-century parenting manuals.
Bernie is most decidedly not a Jack Black comedy, despite the fact that Black’s acutely realized performance as the impossibly ebullient and unashamedly effeminate Bernie Tiede—the former funeral director, community booster, and all-around good guy from Carthage, Texas, who gunned down his employer, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, in 1996 and hid her in the freezer for nine months—is frequently hilarious and as winning as anything he’s ever done. As for the funny/serious and fiction/documentary questions, they are at the heart of the film itself. In 1998, Linklater read “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth which told the strange tale of Nugent and Tiede, respectively the most despised and best loved figures in the entire small-town community of Carthage. Tiede was the ultimate “people person,” always ready to step in and lend a helping hand to someone in need, to lead the choir, direct and conduct the local musical production, and sing at the funerals of the wealthy widows he befriended. “With that nice tenor voice of his,” comments one such widow to Hollandsworth, “I just knew Bernie could sing me right into heaven.” Nugent, on the other hand, seemed to have nothing but contempt for her fellow citizens: “If she had held her nose any higher, she would have drowned in a rainstorm.” It’s precisely such disarmingly frank language that drew Linklater to the narrative.
Bernie is finally neither a fiction nor a documentary but a recounting of the case from a choral point of view, that of the community itself, some of whose members play themselves and/or give friendly, direct interviews about their memories of the case, and some of whom are represented by actors, mainly Bernie, Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), and Bernie’s principal antagonist, county prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). The film is neither absolutely comic nor fundamentally tragic, the spectacle of Black doing a rousing rendition of “76 Trombones” aside. Our attention is continually drawn away from Bernie and Mrs. Nugent (MacLaine is, in fact, less of a character than a visual figure) and toward the point of view of the man at the lunch counter, the businessman behind his desk, the two women sitting on their porch.
The facts of the case were never in dispute: Tiede did gun down Nugent (“I started thinking about having to live with her for the rest of her life, and I just couldn’t take it,” he explained to his sister), wrap her in a sheet, and place her in the freezer under the frozen foods, and he did abscond with somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million from her bank account, large portions of which he spent on cars—and in one case a home—for those who could not afford them, scholarships for struggling students, and subsidies for local businesses. (Linklater leaves out the more scandalous revelation of Tiede’s sizable tape collection, in which he is seen having sex with a healthy percentage of Carthage’s male population.)
But the troubling question at the heart of this liberating, sunlit, deceptively simple but extremely complex and fairly formidable film is: should the law or the community itself decide the fate of its citizens? Linklater leaves it for us to ponder.