Hidden in Plain Sight
By Michael Koresky
Richard Linklater, U.S., Millennium Entertainment
It’s hard to conceive of an ad campaign less appropriate than the one being used to promote Richard Linklater’s Bernie. Admittedly, this would be a hard film to publicize, so thoroughly, and disquietingly, does it complicate normal generic categories. That said, this quite mysterious and melancholy film surely deserves better than a one-sheet of a dazed-and-confused Jack Black flashing his impish grin off-screen while flanked by costars Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine, all of them against an anonymous and sickly beige background, the title’s “I” dotted with a kooky smear of blood; it looks like nothing more than a nineties-era Pulp Fiction knockoff (“Violence and laughs, together at last! Clay Pigeons, anyone?”).
Don’t let the poster scare you off from watching Bernie; let the film itself do that for you. Linklater’s latest doesn’t really fit comfortably into what we’ve come to expect from a Linklater film: it doesn’t have his oft-deployed limited narrative timeframe, instead dragging its story out to an indeterminate length; and it focuses not on philosophically ambitious outsiders, but rather on a handful of obtuse, considerably non-introspective folk who are fully ensconced in their communities. This is not a film fueled by garrulous and good-natured young people questioning themselves and the world around them, but rather populated by those who’ve been around the block long enough to stop asking. Think of the wayward souls searching for immortality through intellect in Slacker and Waking Life, the curious kids terrified of the future in Dazed and Confused, the desperate-to-self-identify wannabe romantic couple in Before Sunrise and Sunset, even the vengeful twentysomethings stuck in a teenage past of their own minds in Tape—none of them know who they are, and that’s what makes them, oddly, complete. In contrast, Bernie Tiede (Black), a mortician beloved in his close-knit town of Carthage, Texas, is a seeming jolly old soul who never appears to have a moment of reflection. His lack of self-examination would make him frustrating to be around in real life; as a movie protagonist it makes him downright terrifying.
Not only is Bernie not what we might have predicted (or wanted) in a Linklater film, it’s also not what we’ve come to expect from a black comedy (it’s “funny” only insofar as its humor is connoted by its ambiguously chipper tone and cheery visual palette), a true-crime story (it has no satisfying crime-and-punishment arc and lacks any sort of authorial judgment), or a star vehicle (though it puts its lead front and center, it diffuses him considerably). It’s unclear whether Linklater intended to so confound such categories; it’s also unimportant. Bernie’s oddness grows out of its essential humanity, which in this case, also means its unknowability. We never fully understand why people act the way they do in the film, which doesn’t seem so radical a notion—until you realize its central incident is a murder.
Both complicating and justifying its existence is the fact that Linklater’s film is based on a true story. The real Bernie Tiede, a portly funeral-home manager, confessed in 1996 to the fatal rifle-shooting (in the back!) of eighty-one-year-old Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow who had become his friend and benefactor. The context of the crime, and the standing in the community of the killer and victim—Bernie was well-liked; the Scrooge-like Marjorie was despised—are related to us via a gallery of talking heads, played by honest-to-goodness Carthage locals, most of them elderly, dispersed throughout the film. Underlining the authenticity of this Greek chorus is the striking contrast in the casting of megastars MacLaine, as Mrs. Nugent (the actress’s well-practiced cantankerousness reaches new heights of discomfort here, as it’s usually cushioned by surrounding adorability, as in Steel Magnolias or Guarding Tess) and McConaughey, as prosecuting district attorney Buck Davidson. As the opaque centers of this fiction-documentary hybrid, Black, MacLaine, and McConaughey become resolutely artificial, in essence enacting a knowingly farcical version of these allegedly real events—all related to us through hearsay.
If the slang and homily–spouting locals come across as biased, Linklater and his cowriter, Texas-based journalist Skip Hollandsworth, surely do not. Many will find its refusal to “take sides” ultimate evidence of Bernie’s lack of a point (if there’s any film in its director’s oeuvre it resembles it’s The Newton Boys, which had little interest in the machinery of a crime story, focusing on the what rather than the why, and always keeping a strange smile on its face). But it’s also what makes this hard nut so fascinating. While he had previously exploited Jack Black’s mischievous grin and roly-poly physicality to brilliant effect in School of Rock, here Linklater locates a profound hollowness in him. What’s most haunting in Bernie is not Black’s possibly sociopathic behavior but his soulful singing; this is when he’s most articulate—whether wailing hymns at funerals, belting out a rousing rendition of the spiritual chestnut “Love Lifted Me” in his car, or leading “Seventy Six Trombones” in a community theater production of The Music Man—but also most baldly, and blankly, performative. A transparent comic actor, Black is unsettling in Bernie for being unreadable. His actions aren’t disturbing for their violence but for their illogicality.
Did he kill the woman simply out of exasperation with her ill treatment of him? Or was he interested in her money? More questions: is Bernie gay, the Carthage residents wonder in a friendly manner, while at the same time evincing a clear preference to keep their once-golden boy firmly in the closet? And what personal demons drive the film’s version of Buck Davidson to so want to punish Bernie? Linklater doesn’t seem to care, perhaps suspecting that the answers to these questions don’t matter a whit, and that projecting alleged psychological truths onto his characters would only serve to falsely resolve irresolvable human conflicts.