“He put her in the freezer/pulled down the lid/didn’t even move it/just made sure it was plugged in/he held a lot of parties/with her packed on ice/no one suspected anything/’cause Bernie was so nice/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/oh, Bernie, Bernie, what have you done?/you killed old Miss Nugent/and never even run/” — James Clark, “Bernie, What Have You Done?”
We now have the first unalloyed masterpiece of 2012, actually shot and premiered in 2011, Richard Linklater’s dark comedy Bernie, which is more or less being thrown away in theaters, shot on a budget of slightly more than $2 million, with a prints and advertising budget of a mere $1 million. Linklater has long been an eccentric and sharply observant filmmaker who marches to his own beat alone; his one attempt at big budget blandness, a terrible remake of The Bad News Bears (2005), failed because his heart wasn’t in it. But back on his home turf, working with the local residents of Carthage, Texas as some of the main performers in the film, he creates a compelling comedy/drama that’s unique in recent memory; it’s based on a real story, and many of the people in the film are the real participants. The result is something altogether remarkable; a folk tale of a town in thrall to someone who is, when you strip away all the trimmings, someone they don’t know at all.
In Bernie, Linklater tells the true life tale of Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black, in the performance of his career) a smalltown assistant funeral director who is the light of the community, putting on shows, active in church work, and generally well liked by everyone. In time, Bernie sets his sights on a rich, reclusive and generally mean-spirited widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, excellent as always), and gradually works his way into her life, eventually becoming her constant companion and gofer, until her demands upon his time prove too much for Bernie to handle. He summarily shoots her dead in the garage of their palatial home, and hides the body in a freezer, neatly packed underneath a layer of frozen foods.
Using a power of attorney Marjorie had given him, Bernie tells everyone that Marjorie has had a series of strokes, and is recovering in a nursing home out of town, while lavishing gifts on the local townspeople, much to their delight. When Bernie’s cover is finally blown, he freely admits to the murder, but the locals rush to his defense; so much so that the trial has to be moved to a different county so that some sort of justice can be done.
Even with the facts starting them dead in the face, Bernie is so well liked, and Marjorie so despised, that the townspeople are ready to absolve their beloved scoutmaster, theater director, and churchgoer of any and all responsibility, and acquit him. But things don’t work out that way in the end; Bernie winds up convicted of murder, and is currently spending the rest of his life in prison.
What makes the film so effective is not only Black’s guileless — and odd term to use, given the film’s narrative — performance as Bernie, as well as MacLaine’s portrayal of Marjorie, but most pronouncedly Linklater’s use of many of the actual people who were involved in the case, and who remain to this day absolutely convinced that no matter what the facts of the matter are, Bernie is still a “nice man.”
The script for the film was written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Hollandsworth, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” which first brought the bizarre story to the public’s attention. In addition to Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey appears in the film as local District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, but the real stars of the film are the townspeople, who play many of Bernie’s key scenes with the principals with absolute conviction and enthusiasm, so much so that it’s hard to tell who’s acting, and who is simply playing themselves.
One has to go back to something like Rome, Open City (1945) to see such seemingly effortless naturalism; indeed, in one scene in a local diner, as two of the locals harangue Buck for “persecuting” Bernie, you can see that McConaughey is clearly cracking up; the scene is being stolen right out from under his nose by non-professionals, whose ease in front of the camera is absolutely astonishing. They’re not acting at all; they’re telling a story they lived, and they’re thrilled to get a chance to do it on film, for an audience; it’s smalltown theater in every sense of the word.
While everyone seems to be raving about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Bernie seems destined to slip in and out of town almost without notice, and it’s clearly the more daring and ambitious film; it’s folk art, the story of a town with a past, and how that past has become folklore, complete with pithy commentary by the locals that serves as the voiceover narration for much of the film, summed up by a song composed and performed by one of the townspeople, James Baker, whose “Bernie, What Have You Done?” (partially quoted at the top of this piece) condenses the entire plot of the film into 1 minute and 57 seconds, as the end credits roll.
I was also happy to see that Linklater, whose Dazed and Confused (1993) remains perhaps the best film ever made about American adolescence, offers a tip of the hat to the late Eagle Pennell, an excellent and deeply underappreciated artist whose films The Whole Shooting Match (1978) and Last Night at the Alamo (1984) defined Texas filmmaking in the 1970s and early 80s. As Linklater puts it in the credits, “you were with us on this one.” When there’s so much work in theaters right now that doesn’t even begin to excite one’s imagination, it’s nothing less than miraculous when a film this good comes along, clearly made with vast quantities of imagination and insight, and very little money.
Everyone involved is to be congratulated, and hopefully honored, at least at the Independent Spirit Awards, and as for you — you should run out and see it right away. It’s a film that takes real risks, and the sort of movie that needs every bit of support it can get from viewers. They don’t come any better than this.