Monday, February 01, 2016
Bernie (2011 film)
Based on the Texas Monthly article Midnight in the Garden of East Texas by Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie is the story of a mortician who is accused of killing an 80-year old millionaire whom he was romantically involved with. Directed by Richard Linklater and screenplay by Linklater and Hollandsworth, the film is dramatization about the real-life murder of Marjorie Nugent in the hands of Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede as the latter is played by Jack Black with Shirley MacLaine in the role of Nugent. Also starring Matthew McConaughey. Bernie is a delightful yet witty film from Richard Linklater.
Set in the small town of Carthage, Texas in the mid-1990s, the film revolves around a mortician who befriends an 80-year old heiress, whose nasty reputation, by being kind to her until she becomes possessive and jealous where he shocks the town when it’s revealed that he killed her. It’s a story that is simple yet it is told in a documentary fashion where many of the locals in Carthage talk about Bernie as well as Marjorie Nugent and the eventual trial that would happen. With a narrative that moves back and forth from the events that play into Bernie and his relationship with Nugent to the locals talking about what had happened. The script doesn’t just allow to use this narrative to establish what kind of person Bernie is but also the things into what could’ve made him kill Nugent. Especially as Nugent was someone who was just mean that even members of her own family sued her for money as it adds to this strange ambiguity to the story.
Richard Linklater’s direction definitely plays into this offbeat narrative where it acts like a documentary with many of the locals talk and gossip to the camera about all that had happened with Bernie. Many of the people in the film that talk about the events are actual locals which doesn’t just add a sense of authenticity to the film but also make it feel more real as it is. Adding to the sense of realist approach to the film is that it is shot in Carthage, Texas as well as several small towns including the city of Austin where it does play like a Texan film where people have their own values as well as a sense of community. There is even some very witty commentary from a local about why Texas is different from most states as he claims it’s like a different country with states of its own separated into five different sections which sort of makes sense. It is part of a tone in the film where, despite its subject matter, is that it has a sense of humor where Linklater manages to toe the line of what is funny but also what is serious.
While Linklater does use a lot of close-ups and medium shots to play into the intimacy in Bernie’s relationship with Nugent, he also does a few wide shots to capture the spirit of the town and in some of these moments where Bernie wants to share his joy with Nugent who looks annoyed. By the time Nugent is out of the picture though she still looms in Bernie’s head, it does play into a question of guilt but also the question of whether Nugent had it coming. The film’s third act is about the trial where Bernie is confronted by District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) who believes Bernie is fully guilty in making Nugent as his meal ticket to a luxurious lifestyle where he will do anything to put Bernie in prison for life. It doesn’t just add to many questions about a man who committed murder is really guilty or not as well as playing into this idea of high class vs. low class where Davidson uses that to try and make Bernie feel even more guilty despite his confession. Overall, Linklater creates a compelling yet funny film about a real-life murder case and the man who committed the crime in his attempt to be nice to her.
Cinematographer Dick Pope does excellent work with the cinematography with the usage of sunny and naturalistic lighting for many of the daytime exterior scenes for the small Texan towns as well as some unique lighting for some interior scenes set at night. Editor Sandra Adair does brilliant work with the editing with its back-and-forth cutting style from documentary narrative to the re-enacted elements in the narrative along with some montages and jump-cuts. Production designer Bruce Curtis and art director Rodney Becker do amazing work with the look of Nugent’s home in all of the artifacts and posh objects in her home to the more simple and quaint home of Bernie. Costume designer Kari Perkins does nice work with the costumes as it‘s mostly casual to play into the personality of the characters with the exception of Davidson who always wear a big cowboy hat and a suit.
Hair stylist Charmaine Richards and makeup artist Karin Sutherlin do terrific work with the look of Bernie from his black hair and mustache as well as the look of Davidson with his hair. Visual effects supervisors Dale Carman and Dan Dixon do wonderful work with the visual effects as it‘s very minimal for a few scenes such as cruise exteriors and other set dressing features. Sound editor Tom Hammond and sound designer Justin Hennard so superb work with the sound to play into the tense atmosphere of the courtroom as well as the playful atmosphere of the stage plays that Bernie puts together. The film’s music by Graham Reynolds is fantastic for its mixture of folk, country, and gospel as it also has some orchestral elements to play into the world that is East Texas.
The casting by Beth Sepko and Sheila Steele is incredible for the ensemble that is assembled as well as the people who play the locals in Carthage that includes actual residents with the exception of a few including Kay McConaughey. Notable small roles include Brandon Smith as the town’s local sheriff, Larry Jack Dotson as the local reverend, Rick Dial as the funeral home director, Richard Robichaux as Nugent’s stockbroker who is suspicious of Bernie, and Brady Coleman as Bernie’s attorney who believes that Bernie shouldn’t be in prison as they all give amazing performances. Matthew McConaughey is phenomenal as District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson who is convinced that Bernie is completely guilty as he does whatever he can to make Bernie suffer for his crimes while believing that he is doing what is right.
Shirley MacLaine is remarkable as Marjorie Nugent as this very cold old lady who has a lot of money but refuses to share it with anyone where MacLaine brings a charm to the role but also adds this bitchiness that is crucial to the character as she is someone that anyone would kill because of how mean she is. Finally, there’s Jack Black in a sensational performance as the titular character as this mortician who is an all-around nice guy that is very generous as well as being very helpful where he tries to bring the good side of Nugent to Carthage only to realize how awful she is as it’s a very charming and energetic performance from Black who makes Bernie Tiede so loveable as well as sympathetic.
Bernie is a tremendous film from Richard Linklater that features great performances from Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. It’s a film that doesn’t just play into many of the strange aspects of a real-life murder but also a study of small town life and people’s reaction to something like this. In the end, Bernie is an incredible film from Richard Linklater.
Richard Linklater Films: It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books - Slacker - Dazed & Confused - Before Sunrise - subUrbia - The Newton Boys - Waking Life - Tape - School of Rock - Before Sunset - Bad News Bears - A Scanner Darkly - Fast Food Nation - Me and Orson Welles - Before Midnight - Boyhood - Everybody Wants Some!! - The Auteurs #57: Richard Linklater Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
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