BERNIE (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2011, US) – Mr. Nice Guy [Spoilers Ahead]

Jack Black as Bernie Tiede.

Its amazing what a moustache can do for an actor. Comic actor Jack Black has such a moustache in the latest film from director Richard Linklater. The moustache in question makes mortician Bernie Tiede appear deceptively ordinary; it also transforms Jack Black the comedian into a serious actor. Nonetheless, the moustache is also creepy and fits into the similarly terrifying mundanity of Carthage, a typical small town America, which seems occupied solely by an ageing population. It’s as if young people don’t exist in Bernie’s world. Carthage is situated in the Midwest of America, manifesting a beguiling ordinariness and inhabited by people who believe in a conservative morality as epitomised by Bernie’s unnerving friendliness to everyone he meets. Religion in the form of the local church seems to be a binding element in the way community functions. The film opens with members of the town offering us a flattering portrait of Bernie as a saint of Carthage, setting up the notion of subjectivity. Remarkably the film is based on a true story and Linklater involves the town members, interviewing them as if a documentary crew are continually present. Its hard to figure out if the town members are actors or the actual people, thus blurring the line between reality and fiction. If the memories of Bernie are subjective and unreliable, then this becomes a film about a town’s collective perceptions and their attempts to hold on to an image of kindness cultivated over time. Bernie, a harmless, over eager and portly man in his late 30s, becomes romantically involved with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich old widow, who is categorically loathed by the town for her outright meanness. At first Bernie offers support when Marjorie’s husband passes away but his affections soon turn to a companionship. It is not long before Marjorie becomes parasitically dependent on Bernie for all facets of her life including her savings. Marjorie’s control over Bernie becomes obsessive and one day Bernie shoots Marjorie in the back, hiding her body in a deep freeze then sustaining the illusion that she is still alive. Linklater constructs such an innocent, generous and deeply likable portrait of Bernie that when it comes to his arrest and conviction, as an audience we share the town’s feelings that Bernie’s actions should be measured against the way he tried to rejuvenate the town of Carthage and its people. Everything including the murder is underlined by a dark comical tone that runs throughout the film’s episodic narrative so we are never quite sure if Linklater is mocking the world of Carthage or celebrating its distinctiveness. When Bernie is found guilty by the jury and sentenced to life imprisonment, one feels like an injustice has been committed. Yet the facts are clear – Bernie did kill Marjorie, and although it may have not been pre-mediated, the law has to be enforced and this means Bernie being made into a criminal. Linklater ends on a reflexive note with images of the real Bernie in prison, finishing with a brilliant final shot of Jack Black the actor talking to the real Bernie in prison; it’s a moment of real innocence. 

One thought on “BERNIE (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2011, US) – Mr. Nice Guy [Spoilers Ahead]

  1. Just a heads up from someone living Stateside; the film takes place in East Texas which would be considered part of the South, rather than the Midwest.

    All said, I agree that I couldn't tell if the director was making fun of the town, with the people in it being caricatures of small town life, or whether he was humanizing them. All the shots of people talking directly to the camera only create more ambiguity here by giving the film a documentary appearance; I mention this since documentaries are a case where directors allow people to speak for themselves and where directors try to be capable of portraying people they dislike without appearing to editorialize.


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