The Films of 2012: Bernie

“We’re all capable of that dark moment, if we ever get angry enough.”  This unpleasant truth is spoken not by a hard-boiled criminal but by a sweet, soft-spoken woman of a certain age, a resident of Carthage, Texas, where Richard Linklater’s Bernie is set.  It’s an affectionate yet deceptively cynical vision of small-town America, based on an actual murder case in which mild-mannered funeral director Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) impulsively shot his elderly companion Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) to death in her home, then hid the body for months in a freezer.  The news comes as a shock to the residents of Carthage—a town populated almost entirely by old people, as it’s represented here—in whose eyes Bernie was a beloved, if somewhat eccentric, member of the community.  Meanwhile, the district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) conspires to move Bernie’s trial to a neighboring town in an attempt to ensure his conviction, his fear being that Bernie is so well-liked by his fellow Carthaginians that it would be impossible to find anyone impartial enough to serve on the jury.

The case has a bit of a tabloid flavor to it, but as he’s represented by Linklater, Black, and Linklater’s co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie is more than just a Southern-fried Ed Gein.  The film is not a salacious exposé of the gruesome underbelly that lies seething beneath the cheery façade of small-town life.  It’s something less nasty, but perhaps more troubling, than that: a portrait of a well-intentioned do-gooder who, having suffered years of repressed anger (as well as a sex life that appears to have been wholly sublimated into community service), finally cracks, and commits a random act of violence for which he can’t account.  Bernie is something scarier than a monster; he’s an ordinary person whose very niceness and penchant for self-sacrifice ultimately drive him to murder. 

Jack Black’s performance here is immensely appealing—frequently hilarious and, finally, heartbreaking.  He’s capably supported by McConaughey, MacLaine, and a veritable Greek chorus of gossipy, twangy-voiced townspeople, all vividly realized by an ensemble of non-professional actors, who periodically chime in, talking directly to the camera in faux-documentary-like interludes that provide bridges between scenes.  Bernie marks Linklater’s return to his native Texas (his debut feature, Slacker, was set in Austin) and bears his trademark attraction to good, thick talk.  All of Linklater’s movies, the exquisite Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films being the best among them, demand to be listened to as much as they demand to be watched.  Here, in immersing himself in the culture of rural East Texas, Linklater revels in the rich, colloquial humor of his subjects’ speech and mannerisms without ever stooping to condescension.  In revealing their reactions to the news of Bernie’s crime (they’re quick to forgive him on the grounds that he seemed like such a nice person, and his victim was so universally loathed), he also uncovers a moral relativism that is either deeply troubling or deeply comforting, depending on how you look at it.

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