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Non-Review Review: Bernie

Bernie is a gem. Reteaming director Richard Linklater and Jack Black, two talents re-energised by their last collaboration in School of Rock, Bernie is a black comedy based on a true story about a Texas mortician named Bernie Tiede. It’s a beautiful and darkly funny little film, one Linklater shoots in a mockumentary style just to add a touch of  the surreal. It’s a fake documentary (complete with staged reconstructions) of a real event, one of those bizarre slices of Americana. It’s never to harsh on its subject, but it also never pulls any of its punches, feeling very much like one of those stories that is so ridiculous that it must be true.

Mortifying...

Mortifying…

Bernie never rushes. One of the better aspects of the film is the way that Linklater takes all the time necessary to get under the skin of everybody involved in this strange little drama. He introduces the major players, and devotes considerable time to fleshing out life around them. We spend the first half-hour getting to know mortician (“assistant funeral director”) Bernie Tiede. Bernie seems to be the glue that holds the small East Texan town of Carthage together.

Bernie works in the local funeral home, but he is intimately involved in the town’s lives as much as its deaths. He also involves himself in community affairs, shares generously with the people around him, and seems to direct the local amateur drama societies. He has time for everybody in the community, and they appear to cherish him dearly. Linklater frames the story with recorded testimony from the actors in character, offering little bits of gossip or insight about the role that Bernie plays.

Wolf in the fold?

Wolf in the fold?

And the film treats its lead with a great deal of respect, despite his eccentricity. Black is absolutely superb in the title role, demonstrating that he is a talented and formidable actor when given the right material. Black presents this weird aura about Bernie, the sense that something isn’t quite right, but also that he’s a fundamentally decent person. He seems like the type of larger-than-life personality described in the recorded statements, but there’s a very clear humanity to him as well.

He is strange, but the film (and Black) refuse to put the finger on how exactly. There are multiple ways to interpret the true story which inspired the film, and it’s to the credit of Linklater and Black that they try to craft a film that leaves a lot up to the viewer. The film allows the viewer to reach their own conclusions about the extent to which Bernie should be held culpable for his actions, or whether his motivations are entirely altruistic. It’s a bold choice, but it feels like the right one; especially since the film isn’t a documentary relying on recorded statements from the people involved, but has instead drafted in actors to perform a script.

The court of public opinion...

The court of public opinion…

Bernie feels like a real character, one well fleshed out. He’s a mortician who has turned caring for the elderly in an “art.” The opening scene features Bernie offering some advice to aspiring funeral directors. “You must cast the nails to the person,” he suggests. “You wouldn’t want a mechanic to have the nails of a flight attendant, would you?” He’s always thoughtful, particularly when it comes to adjusting the facial expression of the body. “You don’t want him looking unhappy to be there.”

This seems to be the root of the town’s fascination with and appreciation for Bernie, the way that he would lovingly ensure that they could trust him to care for their mortal remains. “In the end,” one actor/interviewee observes, “he made us look good.” And yet the film leaves just enough room to wonder about the man. After all, he is credited with revolutionising the town’s funeral business, including perks like $150 for a white dove released, or trying to pressure families into buying a top of the line coffin. There’s enough there to suggest that Bernie simply wanted what was best for the people involved, but Linklater and Black craft a fascinating ambiguity.

Linklater doesn't massage the facts...

Linklater doesn’t massage the facts…

In a way, Bernie is as much about the East Texan town where lived as it is about the man himself. Small towns are fascinating social environments, and there’s a unique sociology associated with them. Linklater wise allows room for that group psychology to breath a bit, including one impromptu lesson in Texas’ social geography from a local resident. We get glimpses of Bernie hosting “Mrs. Senior Carthage”, and there are question about the extent to which the town profited from (and was complicit in) Bernie’s eventual crime.

One of the more interesting aspects of this small-town mentality comes out when the community is asked to discuss Bernie’s sexuality. Everybody has an opinion on the “effeminate” mortuary worker, and none of them hesitate to share their opinion and the reasoning they used to reach that conclusion. “The kicker is that he always wore sandals,” the District Attorney boasts, as if closing the case on that question. It’s an interesting look at the way that communities like that interact and share information, feeding into popular assumptions.

Weekend with Bernie...

Weekend with Bernie…

Matthew McConnaughey continues his career revival with a solid performance here as the town’s local District Attorney. As much a character as Bernie, McConnaughey relishes the opportunity to play a shrewd political animal trying to capitalise on his small-town charm. We’re told that the politician has a knack for photo opportunities like drug busts and other high profile events, but it’s a treat to see what he does to garner headlines during the “slow times.” At one point, he hatches an ingenious plot to catch a bunch of deadbeat dads. At another, he uses a “wheel of misfortune” to pick his next target.

That is, I suppose, one of the defining features of small-town life – and I say that as somebody who grew up in a relatively small community. There are figures who tend to become larger-than-life, who tend to attract attention, who become “characters.” Linklater seems to understand that, and Bernie is the story of three of these characters interacting, and how the local community reacts to that.

Hat's off to McConnaughey...

Hat’s off to McConnaughey…

It’s a thoughtful, well-constructed little film. It works because the cast is strong enough to bring this version of Carthage to life, but also because Linklater is willing to stand back a bit and let it all play out. It’s a film which doesn’t insist on a particular version of events, but instead allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. I suspect that people watching Bernie will come to different conclusions and have unique opinions about how everything plays out – to what degree various people are guilty or innocent or cynics or victims.

Bernie is good film-making, and comes highly recommended.

2 Responses

  1. This has been on my Netflix cue for a month or so. With this review I finally have the impetus to see it!
    Thanks!

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