SXSW 2012: Linklater's 'Bernie' is a Texas Story About Texas People
by Jeremy Kirk
March 16, 2012
In 1996, Bernie Tiede, a funeral director in Carthage, Texas, shot and killed 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent. He confessed, and a first degree murder trial began, one many locals in Carthage believed was too harsh. You see, people liked Bernie, a pleasant man who contributed so much to that community and who would seemingly never harm a fly. They didn't feel he was the calculating murderer the prosecution made him out to be but a man who was pushed to tragic extremes by Nugent, essentially a woman no one liked and for good reason. Now, Texan-native filmmaker Richard Linklater has turned his story into a film, Bernie.
The titular character is played by Jack Black, who plays Bernie with suitable Southern Christian charm, sauntering instead of walking, stretching his broad cheeks out in a simper to everyone he meets. Black and Linklater's Bernie is not a murderer in the classical sense. He's a man who wants to do good, who has a weakness for wooing older women, and who, after killing Ms. Nugent, kept her body hidden for months while spending hundreds of thousands of her dollars—Nugent was a wealthy widow—on the people in Carthage, the people Tiede grew to love as a family, and the people who loved him in return.
Linklater's film does a fine job displaying the facts, such as they are. A bit of digging uncovers some minor inaccuracies in the story here, but nothing has been drastically altered. The authenticity of his story is aided throughout the film by one-on-one interviews with some of the people of Carthage, the film's most entertaining element. Texas is filled with eccentric people. Hang out long enough in this state, and you come to learn that. Linklater has found the best the eccentric group has to offer in Carthage. Their stories of Tiede and Nugent, the courtship, the murder, and the trial provide ample amounts of comedy, one gentleman breaking Texas down into five categories in completely accurate description and absolutely hilarious. Watch this movie with a Texas crowd, and you'll learn just how many applause breaks Bernie deserves for the genuine way it depicts Texas, especially East Texas where Carthage lays.
The interview side of Linklater's Bernie is better than the reenacted narrative, where actors like Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, who plays the smooth-talking local district attorney, bring their characters to Southern deep fried life. All three are exact with the way their characters should play out here, Black also able to display his singing and dancing chops in one of the film's most memorable moments. The comedy throughout, brought up even higher by the actors, is consistent, pleasant.
Bernie is probably the most pleasant black comedy you'll ever see. Considering the subject matter, though, this tone completely fits. You find yourself growing more and more sympathetic to Bernie. Linklater is obviously on the side of the people who feel Tiede wasn't a cold-blooded murderer looking to spend an elderly woman's fortune. Bernie never spent a dime on himself that wasn't a necessity of some kind. The money he spent after her death went back to those he cared about, the people who he felt Ms. Nugent had been stepping on for years. It's a harsh thing to say, but they welcomed her death. That one of their best had to suffer because of it, is what hurt the community.
Linklater has a brilliant way telling Texas stories about Texas people. Bernie Tiede's story wasn't one that reached as far North as Southern Illinois, where this critic was born and raised, but it reached legendary status in good ole Texas. The humor in Linklater's film is never fierce, as you might come to expect with a black comedy. It's a more subdued comedy found in Bernie, one that pipes with a drawl and moves just as fast as it should. It tells its story like one of the residents of Carthage tells theirs, stories and people who you could listen to bicker about their fellow townsfolk for hours on end. Just make sure you've got some pecan pie and a Dr. Pepper at the ready. Linklater wants to make you a local.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 8.5 out of 10