Blog Directory CineVerse: No, it's not that Bernie (the politician); it's this Bernie (the mortician)

No, it's not that Bernie (the politician); it's this Bernie (the mortician)

Monday, March 22, 2021

Director Richard Linklater has established himself as an expert storyteller across several genres. Even his overlooked works glimmer with interesting ideas, curious notions, and captivating characters. For proof, explore Bernie, a 2011 film that was quickly ignored and forgotten. CineVerse brushed off the dust and discovered a shiny little gem last week during our discussion of this movie (to listen to a recording of our group talk, click here). Here’s a recap of our talking points:

What did you find surprising, unexpected, refreshing, or memorable about Bernie?

  • This is debatably Jack Black’s finest performance and best role.
    • Slant critic Jordan Cronk wrote: “Black, a performer who oftentimes needs to be reined in with a steady hand, is here finally granted the opportunity to tap into most everything he does well (quirky physical humor, darkly shaded yet sincere comedy, musical performance), in service of a character that would be all too easy to overplay. His Bernie Tiede is at once identifiable, sympathetic, and reprehensible, a tightrope walk that he ably navigates, casting a spell not unlike the real-life Tiede.”
  • Director Richard Linklater approaches the material as a mockumentary in which we are given straight dramatic scenes with actors that are commented on by talking head locals—some of whom are non-actors. This lends authenticity and sociocultural credibility to the movie, making Bernie more believable and accessible to audiences.
  • The filmmakers and actors don’t definitively okay answer what motivates Bernie or pigeonhole him into one category. It’s easy to deduce that he’s a sly gold digger, but we learn that he gives most of Marjorie’s money away. We aren’t shown scenes of sexual intimacy between Bernie and Marjorie or anyone else. And, at least until the trial, we aren’t given any information about Bernie’s post-murder plans.
  • Tonally, Bernie is an interesting picture, wavering between light and dark, comedy and violence/tragedy, realism and Hollywood fabrication. It also serves as a true-crime film.
  • The film is particularly rewarding for viewers who have no prior knowledge that this was an actual crime and that the story was based on true events and real people. Instead of giving us a prologue title card indicating this, the filmmakers choose to reveal, without words during the end credits, that Bernie is a real convict who paid for the crime of murdering an older woman.
  • On a side note, this film convinced the original prosecutor, Bernie’s lawyer, and a judge to revisit the case and consider previously unknown facts, such as that Bernie was sexually abused between ages 12 and 18, which triggered his sudden murderous violence. After serving 17 years in prison, the real Bernie Tiede was released in 2014. However, Tiede was resentenced in 2016 and is currently serving a 99-year sentence for the crime.

Themes present in Bernie

  • The mystery of human nature and how even the most docile and kind person is capable of violence, evil, and crime.
  • Opposites attract. The warm, friendly, generous, and popular Bernie is so unlike the antisocial, hurtful, cruel, unsympathetic, and unpopular Marjorie. Yet they form an affectionate, intimate bond and that reaps rewards for each.
  • Judging a book by its cover, perception vs. truth, and bias vs. impartiality. The townspeople, and likely many viewers of this film, want to see Bernie acquitted, even though he has confessed to the crime and seems to have enjoyed his time between the murder and his arrest.
  • "Should the law or the community itself decide the fate of its citizens” is a deep question that Film Comment reviewer Kent Jones poses as a message of this movie.
  • Performance and playing a role. BFI film reviewer Andrew Tracy wrote: “Bernie is, among other things, a film about performance – about how we present ourselves or, in the case of the dearly departed, are presented in public. “He had a real knack for drama,” enthuses one of the real-life Carthage residents of Bernie – a sentiment that darkly boomerangs when preening district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, hilarious) declares in his summation at Bernie’s trial that “Bernie Tiede is a calculating, evil actor… he fooled this whole town.”

Other films that Bernie reminds us of

  • Mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap, and Take the Money and Run
  • Fargo, another film with shifts between comic and serious tonalities and which focuses on the culture of a particular regional community
  • True crime adaptations of famous supposed perpetrators, I, Tonya and Reversal of Fortune
  • Clay Pigeons
  • Cookie’s Fortune

Other movies directed by Richard Linklater

  • Slacker
  • Dazed and Confused
  • Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight-- a romantic trilogy
  • School of Rock
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Boyhood

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