Richard Linklater’s 2012 film “Bernie” is worth a rental
It's unlikely that Chattanooga will ever become a limited release city. We aren’t New York or Los Angeles, and as passionate for film as many of us are, we are still a town between two major population centers. Atlanta and Nashville are simply larger markets.
The economics of film release aren’t going to change anytime soon. So, as we twiddle our thumbs and collectively wait for Richard Linklater’s most recent film “Boyhood” to find its way into our darkened theaters, we must look elsewhere for quality.
For those who love Linklater, there is one particular film of his, released in 2012, that might have been overlooked. Hidden away in the sometimes overwhelming suggestions of Netflix is “Bernie,” a character-focused dark comedy that is distinctly Southern. The film is based on a true story, so much so that the film features several interviews with actual residents of Carthage, Texas. Whatever the South is or isn’t, whatever faults and eccentricities it has, it is a place of unique and fascinating culture. “Bernie” shows that there are some things that can only happen below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Bernie Tiede is a transplant to Carthage, Texas from Arkansas who arrives in town to work at the Hawthone Family Funeral Home as assistant funeral director. Charming, effete, conscientious and kind are only a few of the words that could describe Bernie. He is a devout Methodist, a committed community member, and genuine delight to the residents of the town. Bernie is known for taking that extra step, especially towards the recently widowed, providing comfort and friendship at every turn. He treats everyone the same, regardless of their social stature or disposition.
Never is this as evident as when he begins his most infamous relationship with a client, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent. Mrs. Nugent is the sole heir to a fortune made in oil and is regarded as one of the meanest women in Carthage. And yet, Bernie pierces her armor of sour malice and the two become fast friends. After several years of friendship, which includes exotic vacations and first-class living, Mrs. Nugent writes her children out of her will and leaves everything to Bernie. Not long after, Bernie shoots Mrs. Nugent four times in the back on their way to lunch and hides her body in a freezer. The town erupts into an odd controversy—no one quite believes that Bernie committed the crime, despite his immediate confession. The prosecution is forced to request a rare prosecutorial change of venue for the trial. Everyone in Carthage simply loves Bernie too much.
What makes the film great isn’t the story so much as how it is told. Bernie is played by Jack Black, an actor generally not known for understatement, and yet our understanding of his character comes almost exclusively from what others say about him. Black plays the role magnificently. He is appropriately odd and endearing, likable and slightly off-putting. But beyond his performance, the town of Carthage is the real star. The tale is told through interviews and captures the influence of small-town gossip over facts, no matter how concrete they may be.
From an outsider’s perspective, Bernie Tiede is a murderer and scoundrel, an opinion the Nugent family holds to this day. But the town makes him something else. They remember the man who led the choir with grace and sang with a golden voice, the man who directed the youth in musical theater and encouraged participation in the arts, the man who comforted so many during their time of suffering, the man who freely and generously gave to those less fortunate with an old miser’s money. How can someone with such good qualities do something so dark and terrible? The lengths some of the townspeople go to in order to justify a clear case of homicide are fascinating.
“Bernie” is great filmmaking. It takes a powerful understanding of Southern, small-town dynamics to create something so on point in terms of the culture. While the film is billed as a comedy, the humor is found not in what happened but in the way it shaped the conversation and tested the moral integrity of the residents of Carthage. Justice was ultimately served in this case (at least initially), but it is amazing what a person can get away with just for being nice.