Posted by: gdevi | September 10, 2012

Movie review: Bernie (2011)

I have a tremendous amount of work to do, but I wanted to post this review of Richard Linklater’s wonderful, wonderful black comedy Bernie. The movie is based on the completely real true story of a 39 year old East Texas mortician Bernie Tiede who in 1998 murdered his 81 year old oil millionaire widow friend companion, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, universally disliked in the little town of Carthage, Texas as “the mean old hateful bitch.”  Marjorie Nugent was so hated by everyone in her town that nobody even noticed her missing for nine months–including her family–after Bernie Tiede shot her and killed her and stuffed her body in a deep freezer.  Director Linklater read an article by Skip Hollandsworth, an editor at Texas Monthly about the murder of Marjorie Nugent  and the highly interesting trial of Tiede that followed. The defendant, Bernie Tiede, was so well-liked by the Carthage community that the entire town wanted him exonerated and pardoned for the killing of Marjorie Nugent, even after he confessed to the murder. The district attorney Danny Buck Davidson and the court had to move Bernie Tiede’s trial from Carthage to nearby San Augustine because of the outpouring of support for Bernie from within the Carthage community. The Carthage community wanted Bernie Tiede free; they hated Marjorie Nugent even in death. The San Augustine jury, however, does find Tiede guilty and Tiede is currently serving time for murder in Texas. One of the Carthage residents interviewed in the movie, which is in the form of a mockumentary, describes that San Augustin jury thusly: “Hell, I wouldn’t even let them work on my car.” The moral conundrum of this movie, that is part Southern Gothic in the manner of Flannery O’Connor and part Anton Chekhov in its emphatic irony is thus very unique: free the killer, no sympathy for the victim. This incongruity is at the heart of this excellent and gentle comedy. And like all good comedies, the movie is inoculated with  a bemused anesthetic so that the morbidity in the plot is not really a problem.  The victim Mrs. Nugent is really a shallow, mean, pretentious, hateful woman. The strangeness of this true story is especially marked when we consider that the events take place in Texas, death penalty capital of the country.

I like Jack Black as a comic actor. I like his flamboyance in Nacho Libre or School of Rock. I like his quiet, self-deprecating portrayal of characters society would consider failures, such as his role in The Big Year. His Bernie Tiede is a real role to reckon with. He plays a complex character: a real people person but also somewhat of an opportunist, thrifty with his money but loose with other people’s money, a generous, patient and caring friend, a successful salesman, a stalwart community member, a musician and actor, a prissy mortician clipping the last of the stubborn nose hairs from freshly dead corpses–he plays Tiede with the right combination of transparency and inscrutability so that we take him as a genuine human being, and not a caricature. Shirley Maclaine is equally good as the hateful Mrs. Nugent, the widow of oil millionaire “Bubba” Nugent, an obnoxious woman who treats everyone like dirt, arrogant, vain, close-minded, condescending, cruel, conniving, manipulating and demanding. When Tiede meets Mrs. Nugent at her husband’s funeral and starts calling on her in sympathy and eventually befriends her, the community at first doesn’t understand it. We do; Mrs. Nugent has no friends, her siblings and her own children and grandchildren hate her, and she sees Bernie as the perfect servant-companion.  She showers Tiede with money and gifts because he is servile and caring and responds to her every need. She even attaches a pager on Tiede when Tiede gradually puts himself beyond the telephone’s reach. Tiede murders Mrs. Nugent, he says in his confession, because her possessiveness, cruelty and demands become unbearable even for him.

I have always thought of Matthew McConaughey as a terrible actor, but he is wonderful in this movie as the District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson. He plays a Texan in whatever movie he plays, even when he plays, I don’t know–an Indonesian–but in this movie, his mannerisms, his attitude, his strange pronouncements, his whole persona are spot on; he is an ambitious lawyer looking to make it politically big with a scandalous case.  It is a memorable performance.

But the real core of the movie is populated with the actual townspeople from Carthage that Linklater and Hollandsworth interviewed for the movie. These are the real Texan men and women, and they and their comments on the murder and the scandal are just lovely, lovely. The great secret of oil and gas and banking millionaires and billionaires of Texas is that apart from the money, they are nothing. Because, for all its rugged individualism, Texas closely guards its social and communal fabric, and they have absolutely no problem in exposing a “pretentious phony” for what he or she is, regardless of how much or how little money he or she has.  The interviews with the townspeople are just priceless; it is a valuable ethnographic commentary on why nobody cared that an 81-year old woman was shot four times in the back and stuffed in a freezer for nine months. The comments are funny too.

The movie is shot in the form of a mockumentary with the townspeople telling us what they thought of Bernie and Mrs. Nugent intercut with the dramatization of these events with Jack Black and Shirley Maclaine and other professional actors playing various other roles. The Hollywood actors blend right in with the townsfolk.  A mortician murdering an 81 year old woman does not sound like the plot for a musical, or maybe it does, but there is plenty of music in this movie, gospels and hymns, and Jack Black sings wonderfully.  I like Linklater’s films–I really liked Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock–and Bernie also has a similar small-budget, independent movie aura to it. It is a well-written, well-acted, and well-directed movie. I hope it will bring new and challenging roles to Jack Black. See it please, if you haven’t.

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