Friday, May 18, 2012


A Time To Kill, With Jack Black (& Mr. McConaughey)

Jack Black as Bernie Tiede in Richard Linklater's comedy-docudrama "Bernie". 
Millennium Entertainment


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, May 18, 2012

Is there ever a time, aside from self-defense, where cold-blooded murder is justified, or at least understandable?  Often "battered spouse syndrome" is used when a wife or husband kills their spouse after years of abuse, but what of the true story of Bernie Tiede, funeral director and God-worshipper of Carthage, Texas?  Mr. Tiede essentially used a battered spouse defense at his murder trial in 1999, asserting he had to kill notoriously bitter millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent in 1996 because she emotionally battered and berated him continuously daily for months on end despite his planning and accommodating every part of her life and whims.  One of the year's best films so far, Richard Linklater's grim comedy docudrama "Bernie" explores what went wrong in the life of an otherwise angelic and saintly man.

"Bernie" showcases the very best work Jack Black (who was in Mr. Linklater's "School Of Rock") has done to date.  Mr. Black, wonderfully unflinching, disciplined and exacting, plays Bernie Tiede, a flamboyant, relentlessly ingratiating and generous man.  It all seems too good: Bernie is the assistant funeral director in Carthage.  Bernie leads church services and counsels parishioners.  He sings in mellifluous tones.  Every hair on his head is in place.  His smile unwavering.  Bernie enunciates words flawlessly.  He does tireless charity work.  He brings gifts to those in need (and not in need) daily.  He's charming.  He has older ladies fawning over him.  He tries flirting with Marjorie Nugent.  Tries again.  And again.  The ice finally melts.  A relationship begins.  More is suggested.  The same ice will return in a thoroughly different context. 

The thought-provoking "Bernie" implicitly and explicitly poses the question whether a man as helpful, charitable and kind as Mr. Tiede should have ever been convicted of murder in the first place.  Being nice may have been hard work in reality for Mr. Tiede, even if he was genuinely so.  The overall absence of tension in Mr. Black's performance only makes it more powerful when Bernie snaps in a split-second.

The entertaining film, which opened in additional cities including San Francisco today, takes three viewpoints: one from the actual townsfolk of Carthage, the small rural East Texas town where Mr. Tiede was well-known, mostly liked and respected; from two actors -- one of them is Matthew McConaughey -- great here as publicity-seeking electioneering local prosecutor Danny Buck, hell-bent on putting Bernie behind bars for life; and from an intermittent tabloid-y subtitle card, on which prurient questions are raised about Bernie's sexuality and other affairs some of the public in 1996 and movie audience in 2012 are inevitably interested in or fascinated by.

Early on Bernie is embalming in the mortuary.  His cheery voice-over as he prepares the body of a deceased man personnifies his duality.  Is there more to what one sees in this scene?  The precision of Bernie's care of the body suggests not just exactitude but calculation and care -- and the idea that Bernie is just as capable of killing as he is of killing with kindness.  There's a sinister current to this early scene both in the manner it is shot and the all-too-perfect way Mr. Black executes meticulous ritual and process.  There's an element of horror and macabre too, and while Mr. Linklater doesn't expressly indict his lead man, there's an atmosphere of the lurid and sensational that does.  An often uproarious spectacle, "Bernie" is part three-ring circus, with caricatures galore flouting stereotype after stereotype, perception ever-stronger than the bizarre reality.

"Bernie" is a satire that turns on the complications and conveniences of the legal system; and on how a close-knit community is divided between its contempt for Ms. Nugent the hateful senior citizen (played in one-dimensional form by Shirley MacLaine) and its love (and abhorrence) of a nice man who perhaps had a closeted or open homosexuality that town bigots and homophobes were repulsed by.  To an extent "Bernie" is about salesmen, snake oil and storytelling: whose story do you believe as you watch this satire opera?  How is it sold?  How do you want to digest it?  Do you buy it?  And is the storyteller reliable? 

It would be easy to say that Bernie Tiede is a nice man but he takes liberties with Ms. Nugent's money and alienates a family that was never close to her.  Is such alienation a bad thing?  Is the former understandable if not justifiable when you have been given free reign and control by a fully-functioning person over their financial affairs? 

The answers to those questions do not arrive easily, and Mr. Black's fine work in the title role make them even harder to answer.  There's a sanctified, angelic "halo effect" that pervades Mr. Linklater's film.  Bernie's killing of Marjorie Nugent is a mercy killing of sorts but the wrong kind.  The creepy "benevolence" and illusion of keeping Marjorie "alive" in the face of inquiries from increasingly worried stockbrokers and her estranged family members forms the disturbing truth of Bernie's deeply sociopathic side.  In these instances Mr. Black's performance remains as sunny and orderly as it was when Bernie was charming the socks off his church patrons and effortlessly doing "a lot of good for the people of Carthage."  This pleasing and slick-staged docudrama allows for a skillful juxtaposition of formats of "truthiness": folksy fact and thespian fiction styled and satirized for maximum entertainment value.  It works.

"Bernie" tests your level of empathy and the aspects of the human condition that fall into gray areas.  The sanguine, bright, jolly story by "Bernie" screenwriter Mr. Linklater and columnist Skip Hollandsworth (who wrote an account of the original true story about Bernie Tiede in the article "Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas" in Texas Monthly magazine) takes a murky, unsettling turn as Bernie's formalism in mortuary, church and funereal affairs becomes sloppy.  Like the forthcoming film "Compliance", "Bernie" shows that human beings, however nice, well-meaning and squeaky-clean, have the capacity to do amoral or violent things.

There's a nice touch during the end credits that illustrates just how accomplished Mr. Black's stunning work in "Bernie" is.  It's worth your time glimpsing a somewhat profound moment, which you'll instantly recognize when you see it.  Head to your local theater forthwith.

With: Brady Coleman, Rick Dial, Brandon Smith, Richard Robichaux, Tommy G. Kendrick, David Blackwell, Juli Erickson

"Bernie" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some violent images and brief strong language.  The film's running time is one hour and 44 minutes. 

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