“We’re All Going Insane Sooner Or Later”:
Finally reaching these shores after many months, Richard Linklater’s strange little character study Bernie reminds me that every country is in itself many countries. I mean, here is a movie set in Texas and yet I recognise so much of Ireland in it.
How else would you explain those truly weird people in North Tipperary voting in and siding with a known crook and chancer like TD Michael Lowry time after time? Well, it’s just to get back at the rest of us, who happen to live in a civilized county. That should be obvious.
Bernie is set in the real-life town of Carthage in Texas; and here is one of its denizens putting that in context for us:
“Carthage is in East Texas and that is totally different from the rest of Texas, which would be five different states, actually. You got your West Texas out there with a bunch of flat ranchers. Up north you got Dallas snobs with their Mercedes. And then you got your Houston, the Carthinogenic Coast is what I call it…then down south in Antonio that’s where the Tex meets the Mex…like the food. Then in Central Texas you got the People’s Republic of Austin, with a bunch of hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes.
“’Course I left out the Panhandle and a lot of people do. But Carthage: this is where the South begins.”
Now I’ve never been to Texas but I do like that attitude.
Well, the gentle soul Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is small-town Carthage through and through. He was a funeral director there and by God did these people love him. And you can see why: Bernie is just one of the world’s nice guys. He takes his job seriously:
“It’s always an honour to be asked back and I do it gladly because I feel that if even one thing I say or demonstrate today helps you in any way as you embark on your careers then everyone will have benefited: you; those who are grieving; and the deceased.”
On top of that Bernie helps out on local plays and musicals; and in fact he is just pivotal in helping to make his town a nicer place—and as a committed Christian, then almost by definition he wishes to make the world so as well.
Unfortunately for both real-life and cinema Bernie he also wanted to make the super-rich and newly widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) a better person and found himself, through his kindness towards her, drawn into a world where he more or less became her slave.
Now Mrs. Nugent can by no stretch of the imagination be called a good person. Ah, what the hell, call her what her own neighbours called her: evil. Why did Bernie put up with her for so long? Well, I don’t doubt that there was a part of him that enjoyed the good life that she showed him. He seems to have been quite cultured and he certainly enjoyed travelling to the places and living in the style that her huge wealth let him enjoy.
And when he finally lost the plot because of the endless demands of the old bitch he shot her…four times.
Yet in the real world very few people blamed him; in fact his trial was actually moved to a different county because no one in his own area would ever convict him on a jury. Even though he admitted his guilt. That has to be a first.
Sure, he may have been ‘a little light on the loafers’, but even red-blooded Texan heterosexuals liked Bernie.
And I have to admit that I did too. Even after reading up on the real life Bernie I like him. And this guy is doing life for murder. In fact he’ll be 89 before he even has a hope of seeing the outside of prison walls again. Which is one of the film’s strange moral questions: is it right that a nice guy like Bernie should be locked up forever just because he shot someone who he had made happier than she had ever been? A little old lady (who, yes, everybody hated)? In the back? Four times? And stuck her in a freezer for nine months?
OK. I was going to play Devil’s Advocate there just to annoy people; but I won’t. Instead, see the movie for yourself.
More Tattoos than Teeth
Director Richard Linklater, who previously worked with Jack Black on the very different School of Rock, enjoys mixing things up himself. He weaves into the story interviews with both actors and real citizens of Carthage. And these interviews throw up some gems. For example, on the universally hated (even by her own family) Mrs. Nugent:
“Her nose was so high that she’d drown in a rainstorm”.
Or one town member who was utterly dismissive of the jury that sent Bernie to jail:
“Talking about what wine to drink with fish? I mean, come on: these people would drink warm beer with fried mud cat. I took one look at that jury and I said ‘uh oh’…”
Or the imperishable observation:
“They got more tattoos than teeth.”
Another director might have subtly mocked this, but Linklater is Texan himself and as a result a real honesty shines through. I may not have gotten all of their references but you recognise genuine opinions when you hear them. (Just like you recognise lies from a Fine Gael politician. In other words every time they open their mouths.)
The screenplay is by Skip Hollandsworth (along with Linklater) and is based on his own article on the case for Texas Monthly magazine: Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.
I’m delighted to see Bernie finally getting an outing in Ireland. I’ve loved Jack Black ever since High Fidelity and this is his best performance yet, reigning in his natural tendency to go as close to over the top as he can. Matthew McConaughey is a pure pleasure as the publicity-hungry District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, reigning in his natural tendency to take his shirt off every five minutes; and as for Shirley MacLaine as old Mrs. Nugent…she is perfect, just perfect. And it reminds you that we don’t see enough of this crazy old bat anymore. The actress, I mean; not her character. Heh.
Bernie has a terrific Gospel soundtrack, if that is your thing; but I can’t resist giving you this song from James Clark, ‘Bernie, What Have You Done?’ How can anyone resist a song with lyrics like: “You put her in the freezer/closed on down the lid/Didn’t even move it/just made sure it was plugged in”?