After watching Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight last weekend, I was reminded what a terrific writer-director he is and went through my To-watch list for any Linklater movies I had not gotten around to. Bernie was just the ticket. And, let me say, at the outset, that it deserved many more nominations and awards than this.
Before we get to the movie, a few words on Linklater. The Wiki entry linked above gives a quick overview of how he came to films via literature and theater. Most of his films tend to be set over a single day (though not this one) and favoring conversations over too much physical action. Movies for grown-ups, I say. He’s known for certain cinematic techniques (more on this shortly) and being somewhat anti-establishment by continuing to live in Austin, TX rather than moving to Hollywood. Almost all his movies have cult-like status now and with good reason.
A few things I like about him as a storyteller: First, how collaborative he is, both with other writers as well as his actors. Movie-making is a collaborative artform, yes, but, from what I’ve read in interviews, Linklater makes the collaboration a thorough and deep process throughout the before-during-after of a movie not just at specific times as he sees fit. It’s an everything-and-all approach that can be risky, but pays off well in his case. It helps, I suppose, that he often has repeat collaborators – Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black et al. So, there’s a personal relationship in place that continues to strengthen – even if it does take several years between their collaborations. Second, I really enjoy about Linklater is that none of his movies can be called “typical Linklater”. Every one is different in its own right. Which makes him an exciting writer-director to watch. And, third, I love that, as a true storyteller, he’s not just about wanting to tell/share a story, he’s using the process as a way to figure out the story as well – it interests him that much that he’ll commit to it that much.
OK. So, you’ve gathered well now that I’m a long-time Linklater fan. OK. So, onto Bernie.
First, this is based on a true crime story. Back in 1998, Skip Hollandsworth, a journalist, wrote a story about Bernie Tiede, a sometime funeral director in the small, rich town of Carthage, Texas, who had killed an old, rich widow, Marjorie Nugent. The lede below is interesting enough, but do read that well-told story by Hollandsworth too.
Marjorie Nugent was the richest widow in an eccentric town full of rich widows. Bernie Tiede was an assistant funeral home director who became her companion. When she disappeared, nobody seemed alarmed. When he confessed to killing her, nobody seemed outraged.
So, this is what got Linklater interested and he started thinking about how it could be a movie. He even attended the trial. That said, it took him many years before he could get a cast and finances together. Mostly, this was because true crime isn’t Hollywood-interesting unless it is over-dramatized. And, Linklater, of course, wanted to go against the grain by doing the movie in part-documentary style and as a dark comedy instead of a drama. Anyway, things started to fall in place when, many years after the initial concept, he managed to sign up Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey for the main roles.
Oddly, the reason that I had put off getting to this movie was Jack Black as the lead. I’m not a big fan of his usual shtick (although School of Rock, the other Linklater-Black collaboration is a masterpiece) and the Bernie trailer didn’t really do it for me. Let me now apologize to Black and all his fans out there now. He is ah-mazing. As Roger Ebert said: “I would buy a used coffin from this man.” Ebert also wrote that anyone could have seen, from Hollandsworth’s article, that this story would make a good movie but Linklater’s genuis was that he saw Jack Black as Bernie Tiede. I must agree with the latter part because I would never have seen it myself.
MacLaine, as Marjorie Nugent, plays the ornery old woman type she’s mastered in this phase of her career (think of a richer Ouiser Boudreaux from Steel Magnolias) that, really, other than Maggie Smith on the other side of the pond, no one else can play quite as well. I don’t mean to sound like I’m minimizing MacLaine’s abilities when I say that – the woman owns the role and can speak volumes with just a look or a twitch.
McConaughey as the drawling Texan District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, delivers his monologues with just the right touch of comedy and, while I wish he’d had more screentime, you can see why Linklater did not make it so – this was not Danny Buck’s story (although, watching McConaughey makes you wish that could be another movie in its own right).
The rest of the movie cast was really the Greek chorus of real-life Carthage residents (for the most part) who, in their own words, spoke directly to the camera about how much they loved Bernie, how much they disliked Marjorie Nugent and, delivered pretty much all the small-town gossip there is about an odd couple like them. Linklater used their own words, rescripted (that is, polished up a bit). Of all these, there were 2 wonderful characters who were great fun to watch and they were not actually townspeople. One was Lonny, played by Sonny Carl Davis, who gives us a great monologue at the beginning of the movie, explaining how Texas is really 5 states into the camera – you’ve gotta watch this 1-minute clip. I laughed hard at the description of Austin. And, the other was Kay McConaughey, Matthew’s mother, playing a gossipy townswoman – watch this 1/2-minute clip here.
Now, for the story. First, given this was a true story, it was important to get the details right and not make anyone appear ridiculous. Linklater co-wrote this with Hollandsworth and went through his detailed files and interviews from the 1998 article as well as all the trial documentation. Black and Linklater also met with Bernie in prison. As mentioned earlier, Linklater had attended the trial too. In a way, he went into journalist mode – there are so many true details in the movie that the Carthage residents who went to the initial screening in Austin were happy with the overall movie (note – not ALL of Carthage was happy to have such dubious fame thrust upon their little town, but that’s a different issue).
It was important to establish Tiede as a man that everyone in Carthage had come to love as a kind and sweet person who cared for all the D.L.O.L (dear little old ladies, apparently), had become quite the community organizer and was exceedingly generous (even if it was with Nugent’s money). This could have become hammy and I was afraid for that, with Black. But, he plays it straight all the way through. Linklater mentioned, in some interview, how that was the key to this movie – the characters had to play it straight for it to work well. Also, Linklater believed that, ultimately, this was the story of a nice man who had been like an emotionally-abused spouse in that relationship and finally snapped and shot the other in the back 4 times. Murder, under any circumstance, is not a joke. But, the whole story was bizarre enough that it compelled Linklater to take the black comedy route. Here’s how he put it in a Hitfix interview:
It would be very different if he had done this five other times and bumped off old ladies, then he’s a serial killer. But there’s really no darkness in Bernie. Some people want to push in that direction. I mean, murder’s a dark subject. But in this case, it really isn’t. The act is tragic and dark but everything around it, strangely, wasn’t. That’s what attracted me. I’m not really interested in murder or psychopaths as subjects for things I want to spend time on. I don’t do serial killer movies. But this was my kind of murderer. I think any of us could be this guy. None of us should be too confident that it couldn’t be us, let’s put it that way.
Other than this black comedy told part-documentary style, the story unfolds in mostly a linear narrative. We see Bernie Tiede come to town, get his job at the funeral home, endear himself to the townspeople, become Marjorie Nugent’s permanent companion and accompany her to art events and on vacations all the world over. Not a bad gig if you can get it. It gets to the point where Nugent alters her will and leaves her $10 million estate entirely to Bernie.
We also see how Nugent becomes increasingly possessive of this one person who gives her his full attention and consideration. And how she starts making his life hell – constantly calling him, trapping him within the gates of her home, making him do menial tasks after dismissing her staff, getting upset if he so much as chooses to not appear immediately when she needs him. It isn’t hard to believe that a kind, gentle teddy bear of a man didn’t know how to draw the line or step away and, finally, just snapped and shot her.
The trial is moved to another town 50 miles over because a Carthage jury would never have convicted him. This hits home for Danny Buck, prosecuting District Attorney, when even the Methodist minister offers up prayers for Bernie in his Church services. After a dramatic trial, where Danny Buck pulls out all stops, the 39-year-old Bernie is convicted for life for shooting 81-year-old Nugent in the back and storing her body in a duct-taped freezer in her garage for 9 months. Parole not till 2027. That he got away with no one guessing for nearly 9 months is sad testament to how unpopular Nugent was with her family and the town.
What is implied strongly, but never shown, is how Bernie was not just a confirmed bachelor, but, quite possibly also gay. Apparently, some incriminating video tapes were found in his home after his arrest. He also had a lot of “male friends” to whom he made frequent generous gifts, as Danny Buck explains in one of his monologues. I imagine that Linklater felt this was not necessary to the story of the Tiede-Nugent relationship.
The movie ends with a song on a guitar, written and performed in a mournful tune but with lighter lyrics, by a real-life Carthage citizen, James Baker:
Bernie… oh Bernie… what have you done… you killed poor Mrs. Nugent… and didn’t even run…
In the end, after watching the movie and reading Hollandsworth’s article and a couple others (like this one by Nugent’s nephew in the New York Times), I am left with one nagging question. While I can understand how an entire small town can fall in love with a person like Bernie Tiede, what I cannot understand how they can continue to staunchly defend him even after the murder. Whatever their beliefs might be – he snapped, she deserved it, etc. – it’s hard to understand why some of them even petitioned for his release after conviction. I guess, as one of the Carthage people said on camera, you just had to be there to understand how much Bernie was loved by all.
Go watch it if you haven’t already. And, a friendly bit of advice – try to avoid any food or drink during the opening scene. You’ll see why.
[PS Watch the real Bernie Tiede, Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes (defense attorney) in this 10-minute video, if you’re so inclined.]