May 18, 2012
Bernie: the best little murder movie in Texas
Richard Linklater's new movie, Bernie, came out three weeks ago. It stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. Somehow, it's only made $540,000 so far. Whoever's job it was to promote this movie has majorly blown it, because this is probably the best movie I've seen this year--it's funny, dark, and strange, and it's full of hilariously wonderful East Texan townspeople that are so charming and believable they reach a Coen Brothers-level of grotesque authenticity.
The movie recreates the real-life story of Bernie Tiede, a warm and gregarious assistant funeral director in small town Texas who shocked everyone by murdering Marjorie Nugent, the rich (and mean) old lady who had become his companion. Shot her in the back and hid the body in the freezer under the Marie Callender chicken potpies.
What makes it even more bizarre is that Bernie was so popular and beloved by everyone in town, that even after he confessed to the murder, people either refused to believe it or thought it would be best to just forget about the whole thing and let Bernie get back to singing in the church choir and directing high school musicals. Oh yeah, Bernie's gay and closeted.
I'm a Jack Black fan, and I think this is by far the best role he's ever done. He's just as magnetic as he is in High Fidelity and School of Rock, but he's less manic and shows some real range. Bernie isn't just a version of Jack Black, even if he still does a lot of singing and dancing and chewing of scenery--it's a more measured and focused performance than the other stuff he's done. The townspeople who give documentary-style commentary are so exuberantly flamboyant that I really wasn't sure if they were actors or not. A few real residents of Carthage, TX were apparently hired to play versions of themselves, but most of the townspeople are played by character actors, many of whom were also on "Friday Night Lights", so you know they're the real deal.
The nephew of the murdered Mrs. Nugent, Joe Rhodes, wrote a great piece in the Times Magazine a few weeks ago called "How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze" that includes anecdotes about growing up with his incredibly mean and probably psychotic aunt, and stories from the movie set. He also interviewed the real Bernie, who's serving many decades in prison. Some family members are upset about the movie, and some townspeople are offended that a comedy was made about their tragedy (of losing Bernie, not Mrs. Nugent.) But the nephew, to his credit, understands why this movie is a comedy:
Here's the trailer, which might be part of the marketing problem--it's heavy on the quirky camp, while the movie pretty much plays it straight. Here's a clip of Jack Black singing along with The Florida Boys' excellent southern gospel version of "Love Lifted Me". And here's a great interview with Linklater about this project, which he's been working on for 10 years!
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