Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Richard Linklater's BERNIE

"Well, he was always very quiet."
"It's the quiet ones you gotta watch."  

Those are the kinds of phrases used when people talk about someone who turned out, lo and behold, was a killer.  You know, where the guy was just a meek sorta guy who keep to himself and didn't bother anybody but then turned out to be a psychopath.  There is shock there in what is now a stereotype.  There is similar shock for the townspeople of Carthage, Texas, who find out their beloved Bernie Tiede, the Assistant Funeral Director (Jack Black) shot his dear-old, um, girlfriend companion Marjorie and kept her in a freezer in his garage as he spent the next nine months using her loads of funds from the bank she ran to... give to charity and set up honest businesses and make a wing of the church.  Also, he wasn't exactly a 'quiet' guy.  More like a sexually questionable (gay? maybe not?) Jesus-buff (I hesitate to say 'freak' since he is too jolly for that term) who was good with consoling people, and getting them to buy a not-too-cheap casket.  Oh, and how he could sing and perform!

Bernie is a totally engrossing character study, and not simply because of how the director, the wonderful Austin-based director Richard Linklater, chooses to structure it.  No, that might be a little too easy, since he uses a whole lot of talking heads making it more of a docudrama than a simple dramatization (whether the townspeople interviewed are all Carthage natives or local actors I'm not sure, I'd need more research for that).  But it is a true story, we learn for sure at the end of the film with the real Bernie and Marjorie seen in pictures (and Black with the real Bernie in a prison).  That helps to make it compelling all on its own.  What really strikes gold is just how odd the story is, yet how there is a certain innocence and charm, or just small-town-simpleness that is hard to really scoff at TOO much, unless you're just a total cynic (and on the bright side, the film makes sure to set up right from the beginning what *kind* of Texas this is we're in, which is right on the east where it becomes "the South".

The other thing that makes Bernie so enjoyable are the performances.  Black, who plays Tiede with a sweetness that is disarming and with little touches just as he's driving around or looking at Shirley MacLaine with a kind but increasingly befuddled look (who equally gets to have tons of fun playing this old bitch who is the only one seemingly to piss off the townspeople enough to not really give a shit about her), gets to shine here like I've rarely if ever seen him.  Too often Black's problem is relying on the "Black Schtick" where he just goes wild and crazy and does the same thing he's been doing since his Tenacious D days started (though they have returned and are quite epic so that's another story).  But here it's an actual character, a person who is more complex than even the townspeople can get into.  What makes the character a lovable enigma, and Black's acting such a keeper, is that as the interviewees go on to figure out this seemingly personable "people person" who was super sociable and kind a without a shred of (over)-manipulation, we still don't quite know entirely what to make of this guy.  "Is it a Jekyll and Hyde thing?" he asks someone at one point, as he's still haunted by what he's done.

I've brought cookies and lotion!  
I think there is something else to the whole relationship that unfolds between Bernie and Marjorie.  Was there sex?  Who knows, and really who cares?  There is a component of a kind of sexual tension, however, not even taking into account their age or social status (though the latter might factor in a little) - Marjorie is the dominant, and Bernie is the submissive.  For all of Bernie's complaints that keep piling up about how domineering his live-in "mother" gets (if that term is usable, and while he's not here I'm sure Slavoj Zizek would allow it), he puts up with it, even, sorta, when she makes him a real prisoner.  There is a sad component to Marjorie as well; she is not a totally unlikable character... well, I shouldn't judge too much, though I can, but her mean-streak we see is built up over time as she shuts out everyone, her family, her dead-husband, any friends, only a stockbroker left taking her punishment for the commissions (at least according to Bernie, after a certain 'fact').  Having Bernie around is not just about the attention he pays her and that she thinks someone 'gets' her, it's that she has someone who is willing to submit to her, that won't just walk away from the punishment and abuse.

Which is what makes the inevitable 'break' so heartbreaking... for a moment.  Then Bernie, who is genuinely upset by what he's done, uses human nature and what he knows about people - at least the people from Carthage - to an advantage.  He reminded me just a bit like Mark Whitacre (or the Matt Damon Whitacre) of The Informant!, a guy who is affable and seemingly genuine, but can also lie through his teeth.  The comedy, as it might be, is how he deals with this terrible situation, and then how the beleaguered local prosecutor (McConaughey, playing a kind of total 180 of his character from A Time to Kill) who doesn't understand how people can *like* this admitted killer.  By the end of this story I still wasn't sure how to totally feel about Bernie the man, and I liked it that way.  There was no clean-cut "this is why he did this or that".  He says some things, to be sure, and there's a trial where some hard truths about money and a lifestyle are raised, but the combination of some really crackling comedic/dramatic dialog, intensely realized characterizations, and an odd lightness about a lot of it makes the film endearing.

So - see it for Black, or MacLaine or MacConaughey or all of the above, and Linklater trying another kind of movie, a deadpan dark comic screwball tragic mystery docudrama mash-up (maybe I'm forgetting religious parable in there too, and a sprinkling of musical), and succeeding.