True crime

True crime

Fact and fiction conspire to create an interesting film

By Tim Pompey 05/17/2012

Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine
Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language
1 hr., 44 mins.

You’ve heard the adage about truth being stranger than fiction. The film Bernie is a case in point. It’s a true story about Bernie Tiede, a much loved citizen of Carthage, Texas (which, as one good ol’ boy from Carthage explains, is located in the state of East Texas). Bernie commits murder by shooting an elderly lady in the back. Even worse, he hides her dead body in a freezer for nine months. Oh, bad Bernie. Very bad, Bernie.

Well, actually, funny Bernie, because as it turns out, the citizens of Carthage swear that Bernie was a sweetheart, and the woman he shot was an evil hag who deserved what she got. This film tells Bernie’s story and explains their logic. Welcome to Our Town Texas-style.

Director Richard Linklater, known for such offbeat films as Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Waking Life, has hit the mother lode here. What’s more, he did it the easy way — by gathering his crew plus some actors and a truckload of actual Carthaginians, turning on the camera, and simply yelling “Action!”

Yes, there is a plot, co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, the reporter who first published this story 15 years ago. To his credit, he keeps his writing straightforward and seems to get the facts right, though you can’t help noting as you watch that even the plainest words can have a sharp side.

There are also actors who do a plausible job of telling that story — Jack Black in particular seems born to play Bernie. His usually hammy style plays right into Bernie’s overly earnest and exuberant personality; a man meticulous, upbeat and eager to please.

Shirley MacLaine is the yin to Bernie’s yang as the nasty widow, Marjorie Nugent. Remember Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment? This is Aurora 30 years later and having gone to the dark side. MacLaine captures the subtlety of Marjorie, showing her bitter side and just a sneak peak at that tiny spark of humanity holding on by its fingernails underneath her pale blank face.

But the stars of the show are the real-life folks from Carthage who knew Bernie best. These are small-town, salt-of-the-earth folk. They’re blunt and witty as hell, and without exception, they all loved Bernie and believe he got a raw deal from local district attorney Danny Buck.

There’s no doubt what Bernie did. After all, he confessed to the crime. He had a trial. He went to jail. But, for the folks of Carthage, the important question still lingers:  Did the real Bernie, our Bernie, really shoot this old bitch?

It may have been possible to get actors to fill out these roles à la Christopher Guest and his mockumentaries, but why? These folks are naturals and don’t seem intimidated at all by a Hollywood director, a camera, actors or any other highfalutin smarty pants.

Linklater’s past films have tried to capture the diverse and sprawling nature of human behavior. Here he gets to tell a real story that brings together everything he’s tried to do as a filmmaker.

Sometimes, as with Before Sunrise, he tells an intimate story. Sometimes, as with Dazed and Confused, he tells a raw, funny story. Here, he gets to do both. But the genius of Bernie is that the characters — the actors and the townsfolk — tell their own stories, and we as film viewers get to make up our own minds about what we think.

Bernie is both a movie and a documentary. It’s also a microcosm of human nature, the dark and the light, and the friendships that connect the two. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up. It’s real life. And as the good citizens of Carthage teach us, sometimes even a killer can make you laugh.


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