Bernie (2011)

3 Aug

Richard Linklater’s fifteenth feature film is a reunion of sorts – it stars Jack Black (School of Rock) and Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused) and is the first film of Linklater’s set solely in Texas in sixteen years. Set in the small town of Carthage, Bernie tells the true story of the community’s beloved 39 year old mortician, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), and the gruesome murder of his companion, octogenarian Marjorie Nugent, whom Tiede killed and kept in a freezer for six months. The subsequent events were even stranger than the murder itself: after Tiede’s arrest, the town quickly rallied to his side, united by their love for him and their a long-standing hatred of Nugent.

The film employs a pseudo-documentary style that splices interviews into the traditional narrative; some of the interviews in the film are real and these interviews sit seamlessly alongside those that are acted, so it is likely that the town really is as painfully quaint and hickish as it is portrayed. Thus it sometimes settles for the easy laughs: one of interviewees refers to the jury as having “more tattoos than teeth and not a brain cell among them”. But this is a minor quibble – the film elicits genuine laughs and is worth watching for the performances, which vary from the predictably silly (Matthew McConaughey as prosecuting lawyer Danny “Buck” Davidson) to the absolutely revelatory (Black).

What is striking about the film is its central moral conundrum of Bernie’s culpability, which is at first artfully obscured by the film’s black humour. Nugent’s real-life nephew, Joe Rhodes, wrote an excellent article about his family’s (and Carthage’s) hostile relationship with Aunt Marge. The abusive, psychotic behaviour of the real Nugent makes her seem like the antagonist of a Dickens’ novel; interestingly, the Marjorie Nugent of Bernie isn’t as horrible as the one described by Rhodes. Although Shirley MacLaine’s portrayal is wonderful, she isn’t the kidnapping, violent sociopath that Rhodes describes. If anything, the decision to play down her malevolence complexifies the film – had MacLaine’s Nugent been as truly awful as the real woman, her eventual murder would be more clear-cut and understandable. It is this nuance that creates an undertone of unease; the film is really about the precariousness of our own capacity for love and cruelty.

Bernie is, overall, a wonderful entry in Linklater’s oevre and a very mature film. Highly recommended.

 

By Tessa Clews

 

For ticketing information and session times in your region visit: http://www.nzff.co.nz/

Joe Rhodes’ article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/magazine/how-my-aunt-marge-ended-up-in-the-deep-freeze.html?_r=1

 

 

 

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