The Linklater Project 3: Bernie (2012)

One of our favorite filmmakers, Richard Linklater, is releasing a new film this August. So, we figured we’d watch all of the other movies he has made before then… just, you know, for context. (While applying a totally made up rating system, of course). Follow along with us.

Bernie is the biopic/true crime film about real life events of east Texas assistant funeral director and convicted murderer Bernie Tiede. Featuring a cast comprised largely of actual citizens of the tiny town of Carthage where Bernie murdered his, uh, life companion Marjorie Nugent, this film is possessed of authenticity and empathy rarely seen in major releases.

Who is the protagonist? Who is the film about?

Unlike our previous entries in this series, there is no question as to who the protagonist is here – the titular Bernie Tiede. Nearly comprehensively described as the best dude ever by the people of Carthage, Bernie’s foray into murder (or manslaughter, depending on who you ask) is met with sympathy or outright disbelief by many in his community who simply can’t imagine he could be at fault despite his full confession. Mention needs to be made of Jack Black’s performance as Tiede, which is the best of his career.

Who/what is the antagonist – or propels the action?

As we see it, there are two antagonists in this film, one for each act. Shirley MacLaine’s inimical Marjorie Nugent in the first, and Matthew McConaughey’s fragile Texas stud and DA Danny Buck in the second.

Midnight Cinematic Index (MCI) Rating

Characters: 5

Bernie is an oddly funny crime story/character study focused on a central figure, but its supporting cast is what elevates this film. The story goes that Richard Linklater read an article about Bernie in Texas Monthly and was considering it for a small project, so he went to east Texas to do some research. Early interviews with Carthage locals were so endearing and genuine that they reshaped his vision from short documentary to weird feature length dramatization featuring real Carthage residents alongside professional actors. Certainly some of the amateurs are performing an enhanced version of themselves, but it’s all done with a wink and a self-aware smile.

Style: 3.5

Though not striking, Linklater’s sneaky ability to stage a scene for comedic impact is in full bloom in this project. It’s got a great score and soundtrack that, together with the understated visual style, deliver a charming and (I’m assuming) accurate portrait of east Texas life in the mid 90’s.

Structure: 4

Bernie harnesses the power of real interviews with Carthage locals interspersed throughout the before and after events at its murderously creamy center. These offer rich cultural context as well as comic relief at times, but they also help to locate this bizarre tale in the real world. The confessional style excerpts also feature some pretty classic Matthew McConaughey riffage on the nature of homosexuality and crime as Danny Buck.

Ideas: 3

This is more or less a straight telling of true events based on police and court records and investigative journalism. It implies questions about the nature of guilt and redemption, but this isn’t a film about big ideas. It’s about a guy who’s so damn nice and beloved by his community that they simply refuse to blame him for committing murder.

Midnight Rating: 4

Bernie is the weird, quirky film about a very specific murder (as its marketing campaign promised), but it’s also a love letter to east Texas – and maybe small town Texas in general – from a native son who is truly enamored of his home state. Not unlike Slacker, it’s reflective of a specific time and place, serving partially as a document for posterity. It also features top drawer performances from Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey that are worth the time alone.

Linklaterism Bonus: 21%

For mildly threatening hyper-masculinity, Texas, armchair philosophizing (half-point), conspiracy theories (half-point).

Overall: 4.72

Bernie is streaming on Amazon Prime and is rentable (Google Play). It’s certainly worth your time if you haven’t seen it.

In the same movie family as…

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