From political and celebrity biopics to documentary dramatizations, modern American cinema’s true-to-life narratives have grown increasingly tired over the years. Whether overly liberal interpretations that tend to lose the thread of realization or more reverent chronicles utilizing verisimilitude as artistic safety nets, the results have remained pretty consistently stale. At first blush, Richard Linklater, helmer of Gen-X stoner classics (Slacker, Dazed and Confused), small-scale Éric Rohmer riffs (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), cutting-edge rotoscope experiments (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), and adolescent-rebellion comedies (School of Rock, Bad News Bears) alike, wouldn’t seem like the filmmaker to shake up such a traditional framework. After all, his most recent attempt at transposing real-life events into dramatic text with the curtain-raising Mercury Theater chronicle Me and Orson Welles, proved competent yet conventional in a manner which fell in line with the growing number of similarly staged nonfiction narratives. Then again, if nothing else his career has certainly betrayed a restless, thematically magnanimous spirit, the kind of approach that curtails most effectively with matters both familiar and, in best-case scenarios, personal. His latest film, the darkly comedic Bernie, horribly marketed and then snuck on to far too few screens this summer after sitting in distribution limbo for over a year, captures this playfully reverent energy in the top form.
Based on a real-life case involving an East Texas assistant funeral home director accused of murdering an 81-year-old woman after working for years as her caretaker of sorts, the story of Bernie Tiede has been gestating in Linklater and screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth’s collective psyches for over a decade, when each we’re drawn to the unusual events in the autumn of 1997 as Tiede awaited trial. Hollandsworth would soon write a short piece on the murder for a local newspaper, inspiring Linklater to attend the actual trial the next year, and from there 10-plus years of development would ensue as the two collaborated on a script while attending to other projects and obligations, all the while awaiting their preferred actors (Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine) to reach the respective ages to accurately portray these almost larger-than-life characters.
You see, Bernie Tiede (Black)—beloved member of the church, song-and-dance man for local youth programs, general patron saint of Carthage, Texas—wasn’t your average good Samaritan. Rather, his Christ-like unselfishness and lack of any and all sociological pretense elevated him to the realm of local deity. So much so that when his client turned companion Majorie Nugent (MacLaine) was found dead in her freezer nine months after her apparent murder, the Carthage community either outright denied Tiede’s implication or, in most all other cases, condoned his actions. It’s obviously a story ripe for cinematic treatment, and one that the Texas-bred Linklater revels in with an eye and ear for detail that only a local could properly capture and an appropriately mischievous stylistic bent that only a veteran of wide-ranging Midwest comedies and character-driven dramas could ably construct. And sure enough, the marriage of story and sensibility proves symbiotic, resulting in one of the most subtly ambitious American narratives in recent film.
Linklater frames the film as a kind of docu-dramedy, with real-life Carthage townsfolk sitting in as interviewees, attempting to elucidate some of the more ambiguous details of Tiede’s personal life, which always seemed to take a backseat to whatever he was doing professionally at the time. These citizens turn out to be some of the film’s most fascinating characters, gossiping, bickering, and shoehorning their way into Bernie’s plight, and if it wasn’t for Matthew McConaughey popping up as District Attorney Danny Buck, there’s a chance one wouldn’t even begin to question what’s scripted and what’s genuinely conveyed, so seamless is the union between Linklater and Hollandsworth’s regional dialect and their performers’ natural execution. The film therefore ends up playing as a kind of cinematic storybook (there are even titles cards and an animated sequence peppering the narrative), with scenes and character activity bouncing off the interviewee’s theories and rumor mongering in effortlessly entertaining fashion.
It should go without saying that these are tricky characterizations to pull off, but like the community of Carthage residents, Linklater cast the film’s leads with an impeccable eye beyond simple physical approximation. Black, a performer who often times needs to be reined in with a steady hand, is here finally granted the opportunity to tap into most everything he does well (quirky physical humor, darkly shaded yet sincere comedy, musical performance), in service of a character that would be all too easy to overplay. His Bernie Tiede is at once identifiable, sympathetic, and reprehensible, a tightrope walk that he ably navigates, casting a spell not unlike the real life Tiede (I’d venture to guess that most viewers will be cheering for his acquittal just as the actual Carthage community did).
MacLaine, meanwhile, is a coiled ball of bad vibes as Nugent, and yet she exudes small traces of humanity beneath her stern veneer that hints at loss and a real humanity that she’s long since abandoned. And then there’s McConaughey, on an unbelievable run right now with his lauded work in The Lincoln Lawyer, his show-stopping turn in Magic Mike, his fierce realization of the maniacal Killer Joe, and his soulful portrayal of the title character in Jeff Nichols’s upcoming Mud. But his turn here as the overly ambitious and unintentionally hilarious Danny Buck plays well to his understated, straight-faced comedic strengths; in fact, Buck would probably take particular pride in corralling McConaughey’s own David Wooderson character from Dazed and Confused.
These are all elements that hinge on the guidance of Linklater, who stays unbiased in his presentation, a vital tact that he has occasionally let veer too far in the other direction (see Fast Food Nation). But with Bernie he allows the characters to come alive through a naturally evolving narrative without grafting them on to a predetermined aesthetic. A simple retelling of Tiede’s oftentimes unbelievable story would have made for another fleeting, uninvolving entertainment more or less interchangeable with what we’ve come to expect from American biopics and nonfiction works of this nature. The key to the Linklater’s success with Bernie, then, isn’t only his empathy for each and every character involved in this story, but his willingness to present each one honestly, flaws and all, turning what should in any objectionable sense be a cut-and-dry case of murder in the first into something approaching grand tragedy.
Millennium Entrainment’s Bernie Blu-ray impressively transfers cinematographer Dick Pope’s slick but not overly glossy image in an attractive manner. Colors are warm and nicely shaded, with each actor’s skin tones and everyday wardrobes translating authentically, while the East Texas landscape becomes a character in itself, bristling with detail and depth as characters oftentimes occupy the foreground. Overall the 1080p transfer provides a rich image.
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track heads up the sound options, and while Bernie is more of an intimate character piece than anything, there are moments where Black is called upon to sing or perform with a choir where the rear channels find a bit more to work with. Dialogue is clear and consistently audible, accentuating the characters’ heavy accents with enough separation so as not to force one to consult the subtitles, which are available in both English and Spanish. There is also an English 2.0 stereo track included for those without surround capabilities.
Three short behind-the-scenes segments headline the modest but worthwhile lot of extras, one on Jack Black’s work and preparation for the part of Bernie Tiede, another on Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth’s decade-plus relationship with the material and their eventual adaptation, and finally an entertaining look at the audition process for the Carthage townsfolk. And while they don’t really amount to more than glorified EPKs, each offers material that fans of the film would be interested spending more than a few minutes indulging in. Eleven deleted scenes round out the package, highlighted by another gem of line reading by Matthew McConaughey, and they’re worth a look, if inevitably not essential addendums to film.
One of the year’s most unassumingly ambitious American narratives arrives in the digital marketplace, giving audiences a chance to see Jack Black’s career best performance in an effortlessly entertaining film that fell through the cracks.