Saint Augustine famously confessed that his student days in Carthage were scorched by temptation. As Rex Warner delightfully translates it, “all around me in my ears were the sizzling and frying of unholy loves.” Augustine’s Carthage was a metropolis of the ancient world, a seaport town on the Gulf of Tunis where the urban virtues of education fused with the vices of late adolescent desires. It sounds rather similar to the experiences of college students today.
The Carthage, Texas of Richard Linklater’s latest film is a far cry from the metropolis of its ancient namesake, but temptation and vice are nonetheless its hallmarks. Based on a Texas Monthly true-crime exposé by Skip Hollandsworth (who is credited as a co-writer on the screenplay), Bernie is a small town murder tale populated by wacky characters too diverse and distinctive to be made up. Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral home director beloved by the folk of the small East Texas town because of his mellifluous voice, his care for the bereaved, and his shrewd business sense. All of these gifts are admired, and Bernie is something like a town mascot despite his not-quite-closeted homosexuality. Perhaps his greatest service to the town—which is problematically linked to both his sexuality and his entrepreneurship—is his befriending of recent widows. Even the obstreperous octogenarian millionaire Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) succumbs to Bernie’s charms and invites him to become her travel companion, financial advisor, power of attorney, sole heir, and house slave. Her demands upon Bernie reach such an intolerable crescendo that Bernie, in a blind rage, puts four rounds in her back with an armadillo rifle and stuffs her body into a chest freezer under bags of steaks and peas.
The marvelous turn in the story, and the reason why Hollandsworth wrote his original essay, is that the townspeople almost unanimously agree with Bernie that Marjorie was better off dead. In the months following Marjorie’s “disappearance,” Bernie extends her generosity to the entire town, building up businesses, baseball teams, and the local theater. Only the self-righteous, self-promoting district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) seems to recognize that an innocent woman is dead. In several scenes, Danny Buck sits in a diner delivering exasperated speeches about justice over food so deep-fat fried that even the pie is brown and crispy. His crusade is rebuffed by all the listeners who assure him that if they were put on a jury they would certainly vote for acquittal. Danny Buck is a smug blowhard in a ten-gallon hat, as much of a villain as Marjorie herself, but neither the victim nor the DA are entirely demonized. Partly this has to do with casting MacLaine and McConaughey whose movie-star sheen blends with the obvious pleasure they take from being insufferable. Linklater pulls our sympathies in two directions here: toward the absolute justice of Danny Buck and toward the alluring justice of Carthage, where nice people should be excused a mild bit of murder if the victim is a battle axe.
Bernie’s premise has an all too familiar “ripped from the headlines” quality, full of the stock-in-trade ballyhoo of bottom-feeding tabloid television. But this sensational content gives Linklater an engaging challenge, to imbue the proceedings with enough humor that they are not maudlin and enough pathos that they are not simply satirical. Early in the film, one of the characters explains the geographical personalities of the “five regions of Texas.” There is, for instance, the “carcinogenic coast” of the Gulf and the all-but-ignored panhandle of the North. Central Texas, we learn, is the Republic of Austin, known for “hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes.” For good measure, Linklater illustrates this geography lesson with a cartoon map showing a guitar, a peace sign, and a pot leaf. The pride of Texas, for this Carthaginian, is of course East Texas where a “pine cone curtain” shelters the best from the rest. In interviews, Linklater has claimed an affinity with East Texas, but his lengthy tenure as an Austin-based independent filmmaker and his erudite slacker sensibilities may have more connection with the liberal fruitcakes than the chain-smoking, fake-tanned homophobes he chronicles. A question that remains throughout this film is how much has Linklater escaped the condescension of the Christopher Guest-style mockumentary. Though he never resorts to demonizing the unpleasant characters like Marjorie and Danny Buck, he also never avoids courting laughter at the Podunk residents and their ebullient naïveté.
If indeed the film rises above sniggering its way through the goofy outrageousness of its plot and characters, this may have to do with the inventiveness of its form. Like many of Linklater’s films, Bernie is formally adventurous without being merely flashy or avant-garde just for the sake of style. His early works like Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993) were loose ensemble pieces in the “walking and talking” genre that Linklater helped pioneer as a guiding voice in the independent film boom of the 1990s. He never finished college and made several short movies on Super-8 film to hone his skills. His ultra-low budget (he financed Slacker for $23,000), auto-didactic style influenced many other young filmmakers of the 1990s. In films like Tape (2001) and the series Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), the stories unfold in something close to real-time, experimenting with the audience’s perceptions of temporality and narratives confined by short times and small spaces. Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) manipulated the viewer’s sense of reality through rotoscoping—shooting live actors on digital video and then using a crew of animators to draw over every frame. The former is a moody, hazy, dreamlike movie about dreams, and the latter a remarkably faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi druggie culture parable. In both cases the experimental form matches the content well enough to avoid being merely gimmicky.
There are several noteworthy experimental qualities to Bernie which, by and large, avoid simple cutesiness. Intertitles throughout the film create transitions by asking questions (“Who is Bernie?”; “Was Bernie gay?”). These frames generate an additional layer of whimsy, akin to the playfulness of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films (Delicatessen, Amelie). This comic tone walks a fine line between haughty irony and gentle bemusement, but overall lightens the mood of the plot. At no point does Bernie dive into the grim fatalism of film noir despite a storyline that sixty years ago could easily have enticed Billy Wilder.
In another of Linklater’s subtly experimental choices, the film is peppered with a chorus of talking heads offering their colorful insights about small-town Texas life and the specifics of Bernie Tiede’s case. Many of the actors playing these roles are from the town of Carthage, and a few are even the real people who were involved with the case. This blending of fiction and documentary fits Linklater’s subject, a true story so bizarre that it sounds fictional. Linklater has toyed with this distinction before in his semi-fictional film version of Eric Schlosser’s muckraking best-seller Fast Food Nation (2006) and in one of his first Hollywood films, The Newton Boys (1998) which told the story of real-life brothers who robbed banks in Texas. Though the film mostly portrays the brothers’ exploits, it concludes with interviews of the “boys” in their twilight years having outlived their prison sentences and remaining largely unrepentant. The Newton Boys is the work in Linklater’s oeuvre most similar to Bernie, but the newest film goes further by confusing the distinction between documentary and fictional filmmaking. This experiment owes something of a debt to Errol Morris, the great documentary filmmaker whose works such as The Thin Blue Line, Vernon Florida, and Tabloid use first-person interviews to investigate true-crime, the deep South, and sensationalist American media. But Linklater takes a unique approach by fusing re-enactment, actual interviews, and improvisation to cleverly distort our sense of realism.
Another, less-remarked upon experimental element in Bernie is the fact that the film is covertly a musical. There are half a dozen gospel numbers, showtunes, or hymns sung by Jack Black, many of which are injected into the film to create ironic and humorous contrasts between the settings and the lyrics. One of Jack Black’s first successes in the entertainment industry was his partnership with Kyle Gass in the band Tenacious D, a comedic, acoustic-driven tribute to Satanic death-metal in the spirit of Dio and Slayer. With School of Rock (2003), Linklater and screenwriter Mike White conceived of a structure that allowed Jack Black to do his best parodic rockstar posturing, but Bernie provides an even slyer outlet for Black’s audacious charms. The soundtrack for the movie becomes a flipside of the Tenacious D universe where semi-ironic odes to Jesus replace the Satanic riffs. All of the sung music is diegetic, occurring in the world of the characters themselves—singing in church, at funerals, or on the community-theater stage. But there is also a consistent presence of non-diegetic music, unheard by the characters. As Bernie shudders through a session of folding Marjorie’s laundered undergarments, we hear Graham Reynolds’s rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and the murder itself is accompanied by “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” These musical accents are partly a joke, but also partly a reminder of how thoroughly Christian is Bernie’s world.
The movie’s gospel undercurrent is handled in the same winking, semi-ironic way that everything else is, and for the same reasons is open to charges that it receives mere condescension from the Republic of Austin. But the alternative interpretation is that the smirking, “will you get a load of this?” tone leaves open a space for fascination with these characters. Linklater has been interested in doing this movie for well over a decade and his handling of these cartoonish people displays sympathy that refuses to be entirely snide or bitterly satirical. We are compelled to see Bernie’s choices, criminal and immoral though they are, as choices not unlike ones we might make ourselves in his position.
Among the temptations that troubled Augustine in Carthage was the allure of theater which stimulated emotions but lacked real content. Bernie’s troubles are a bit less arcane and contemplative, but the theater is still a devilish lure. He spends Marjorie’s money on expensive tickets to Les Misérables (which Danny Buck ridicules by pronouncing phonetically and with a drawl) and on producing garish plays in Carthage. And, after Marjorie’s “incident,” he performs the role of generous caretaker, lying to family and accountants about Marjorie’s health. Bernie’s character is undone by his own temptations, his desire for a high life that requires little personal sacrifice (except, of course, the travails of the personal assistant to a petty, controlling woman). He is ultimately undone by the mountain of lies he cannot lift and by the East Texan Javert who dogs him. The unholy loves that sizzle and fry in Bernie’s ears may differ in specifics from those of Linklater, his audience, and the townsfolk of Carthage, but the sympathy felt by all toward this unlikely protagonist are based in some large part upon a mutual recognition of illicit, secretive allures.
Charles Andrews is an Associate Professor of English at Whitworth University.