Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dearly Departed

This is part of the Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

Richard Linklater's Bernie (2012) is a kind of film I've become very familiar with over the last few years thanks to the True/False Film Festival. It's a kind of hybrid non-fiction film. Not really a documentary, not really a mocumentary, but similar in most respects to either. It's also a quirky, regionalist comedy, and a vehicle for star Jack Black. That it is able to balance all of these idioms and incorporate them into a mostly unified whole is a one of the film's more impressive accomplishments.

Bernie Tiede is the assistant funeral director at the funeral home in Carthage, Texas. He is, by the accounts of everyone in town, the sweetest of men. A pillar of the church, an organizer of community theater, a comforter of the bereaved, Bernie hasn't got an enemy anywhere in town. The same cannot be said about Marjorie Nugent, who inherited her husband's fortune and her husband's bank and is a canker to her family. So no one can understand why Bernie enters into a relationship with Mrs. Nugent, especially in light of the fact that everyone in town thinks Bernie is a little bit light in the loafers. Be that as it may, Bernie becomes Marjorie's confidante and companion, traveling the world with her, managing her affairs, and, eventually, becoming trapped as her only servant. At some point, Bernie snaps. He shoots Marjorie in the back four times, then hides the body and pretends that she's still alive, a fiction made possible by the fact that she's universally disliked. The only person who has any interest in whether Marjorie is still alive is her stock broker, Lloyd Hornbuckle. Bernie keeps up the fiction for nine months before Lloyd eventually convinces District Attorney Danny Buck to investigate. Bernie folds pretty quickly, but Buck has a problem. Because Bernie is so well-liked, a jury of his peers is probably going to acquit Bernie, in spite of the confession he delivered upon his arrest...

Bernie is a mesmerizing film, and Linklater lavishes a huge amount filmmaking savvy on it. It's an absolutely dead-on forgery of a talking heads plus reproductions documentary, one that trumps its cinematic role model by putting movie stars in the reproduction. This is one of Jack Black's best roles, and a stretch for him. The movie has been sold by its distributor as a Jack Black comedy, and it IS a Jack Black comedy, I guess, but it's not what you expect from the film's trailer. This was the best part of the movie, by the way: being surprised by the form of the film after seeing the utterly conventional trailers. In any event, Shirley MacLaine is a hoot as Marjorie, a woman who delights in declining bank loans and drives off everyone with a sour disposition and a withering evil eye. Matthew McConaughey is settling in to a second career as a character actor here, and it suits him better than his leading man career ever did.

Bernie is an interesting gallery of faces. The story itself is told from the point of view of the people who knew Bernie (so expertly portrayed that I thought for a while that they were the actual people involved). As a result, you get multiple impressions of Bernie that vary from individual to individual. All of these different perceptions cast the actual events of the story in varying lights, depending on which one you choose to believe. If you believe Danny Buck, Bernie is an opportunist who killed Marjorie for her money. If you believe everyone else, it was something else. Even when the various viewpoints agree on one point, they disagree on others. Was Bernie gay? Were Bernie and Marjorie intimate? Was the good that Bernie did in the community with Marjorie's money outweighed by the crime and did it deserve to be dismantled after Bernie was caught? For a movie with a straightforward set of facts, it surely asks some thorny questions.

The central narrative of the film is a variant of Sunset Boulevard, with Bernie in the Joe Gillis role to Marjorie's Norma Desmond. It's the same kind of mutually parasitic relationship in which both parties benefit at the outset, but in which the balance of power eventually smothers the gigolo character. Bernie salts this with a hint of Psycho when it elides the notion that Bernie is a substitute for Marjorie's own kids (when she makes out her will in Bernie's favor). She enters the canon of monstrous mothers, one pickled in her own meanness. Bernie, for his part, is the very definition of the nice young man who no one can believe is a murderer. Very Norman Bates-ish, complete with hints of homosexuality.

That last bit is sociologically interesting, because it's the hint of queer that dooms Bernie in the end. Buck, for his part, uses the essential homophobia of East Texas to damn him, utilizing a bunch of dogwhistle insinuations regarding Bernie's love of culture and fine things. Is Bernie gay? The movie is mum on the subject, but I think Jack Black plays him that way, forgoing his usual demonic pixie persona in lieu of a kind of queeny niceness, so this is slanted by the movie at the very least. His boss at the funeral parlor thinks he's more asexual ("I thought he was celibate, to tell you the truth") while one of the other townspeople says confidently that "That dog won't hunt." But, of course, it did hunt when Buck changed the venue of the trial so that he was tried by people who didn't know anything about him. So homophobia is central to the film's denouement. Mind you, Bernie was guilty as hell of...some variety of murder. Whether that murder rises to Murder One with premeditation is the film's central mystery, and it's here that the Rashomon effect is particularly effective.


R. D. Finch said...

A very articulately written contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon 2012. I've liked other films by Linklater I've seen, and the reviews I've read of this one intrigued me. I must say, though, that I found your review the most informative I've read yet. You didn't reveal significantly more of the plot than other reviews I've read yet considered the thematic element of the movie, especially its implications as part of Queer Cinema, in much greater depth than anything I've read so far.

Unknown said...

I haven't seen BERNIE, but what you point out about the homosexuality aspect is very interesting. I've always thought it peculiar how finding out about someone's sexual orientation can in any way have a bearing on their guilt or innocence in a court trial. There's such a condemning tone to the accusation that someone in homosexual - I think that needs to change.

Laura said...

I'm glad you liked this movie, since I've had high hopes for it since reading a New York Times article about it by one of the murdered woman's relatives. I really am going to have to catch this one.

Jack Black strikes me as a far more endearing drama/dramedy actor than a slacker-rocker comedian. I hope he pursues more roles like this.

Caroline said...

I've never been a huge fan of Jack Black, but you make this movie sound extremely quirky and intriguing. I will definitely have to track it down. Thanks again for yet another stellar contribution.

nd said...

Thanks for writing this up, one of my favourite films of the year so far. I went into it knowing little of the original story, and expecting Tiede to be a glib, charming widow-killer along the lines of Night of the Hunter. And so the turns of the narrative came as a real challenge and surprise. Your comparisons to Sunset Boulevard and Psycho are spot on.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, everyone. I've had a hard time keeping up with comments this week, so forgive me for doing this in one big go.

Thanks to all the kind words.

@ R. D. Finch: I strive to be informative, though I fail at it pretty often. I really don't like movie criticism that just goes plot point by plot point, so that's not how I write. Thanks for stopping by.

@Margaret Perry: I know. The prejudice of juries is supposed to be counteracted by judges, but judges have their prejudices, too. I don't know how I feel about it in this case, because Bernie is undoubtedly guilty of some kind of murder and he likely would have gotten off if tried in Carthage.

@Laura & Caroline: Bernie is definitely worth seeking out.

@nd: I had no prior knowledge of the film when I saw it. I only knew who was in the cast. I think we're all victims of the hype machine sometimes, and it's pleasant when a movie can surprise you.