Indie Snapshot: Bernie

by Ethan Alter April 27, 2012 5:53 pm
Indie Snapshot: <i>Bernie</i>

Jack Black and Richard Linklater reunite deep in the heart of Texas

After expanding his filmmaking horizons (with mixed results) with the New York-set period piece Me and Orson Welles, Bernie brings Richard Linklater back home in more ways than one. First and foremost, this ripped-from-the-headlines true crime comedy returns the Texas-born director to the Lone Star state, specifically the small town of Carthage in East Texas where the real events unfolded. Secondly, it's a movie that captures a single community from a multitude of perspectives, the same approach that Linklater took in his breakout features, 1991's Slacker and 1993's Dazed and Confused. And while Bernie is more plot-driven than either of those films, it has the same vivid sense of place and personality. Simply put, it's the best movie Linklater has made in years and one that deserves to find a wider audience outside his usual core group of appreciators.

The facts of the case that inspire the film are these: in the late '90s, gregarious assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) somehow managed to befriend Carthage's least loved citizen, the ornery, but absurdly wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Typically one to reject any and all overtures of companionship -- including from her family -- Marjorie welcomed Bernie into her home and life; eventually the two were taking international trips together and she essentially made him the custodian of her affairs. Naturally, tongues wagged about a potential romance between the two or that Bernie was just a gold-digger after her money, but most folks seemed to agree that this was a case where even a bitter old shrew like Marjorie couldn't help but want to be friends with this charming man. As time passed though, she grew increasingly possessive, to the point where Bernie felt as if he were more of a prisoner than a pal. So, one ordinary afternoon, he casually picked up a rifle and shot Marjorie four times in the back. Nine months later, her body was discovered in the freezer in her garage and Bernie immediately confessed to the crime. The case looked like a slam-dunk for local DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) until he discovered that, not only was the tide of public opinion firmly in favor of Bernie's innocence, but many Carthage residents believed that even if he did commit the murder, Marjorie had it coming.

The strange story of Bernie and Marjorie has already been chronicled in a few journalistic outlets, including a Texas Monthly feature by Skip Hollandsworth (who wrote the film's screenplay with Linklater) and, more recently, a New York Times Magazine piece by Times contributing writer -- and nephew of the deceased -- Joe Rhodes. Both of those pieces are well worth seeking out, but Linklater constructs a cinematic chronicle of events that's just as compelling, driven by terrific performances by Black, MacLaine and McConaughey, a well-paced narrative and a Greek chorus of townspeople (some of whom are actual Carthage residents) offering up their perspectives on events as they unfold. The result is a serio-comic crime story that doubles as a provocative meditation on the oddity of human nature. What might cause a decent man to suddenly kill someone in cold blood? And why would a town blame the victim rather than the confessed murderer? Linklater never strains to definitively answer the questions raised by the story, allowing them to float off the screen and lodge themselves in the audience's minds. So many crime dramas devote themselves to firmly establishing the boundaries between right and wrong, it's fascinating to watch a movie where those definitions shift on a scene-to-scene basis. And yet, if Bernie at times seems contradictory, it's never confused; rather, it recognizes that there are multiple sides to every story, not to mention every individual... even one as sweet and good-natured as Bernie Tiede.

Citizen Gangster
In case you were under the impression that crime never plagues the streets of our neighbor to the north, this Canadian-made feature chronicles the life and times of the nation's best-known bank robber. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a cash-strapped World War II veteran named Edwin Boyd (played here by homegrown Canuck star Scott Speedman) donned a fedora and heavy make-up to pull off a series of daring bank robberies that instantly vaulted him to the top of Canada's Most Wanted list. After initially working alone and inevitably getting caught, Boyd teamed up with a crew of other crooks during his first stint in the slammer and, after breaking out and picking up where he left off, they were immediately christened by the press as the Boyd Gang. In addition to his accomplices, Edwin also brought his wife Doreen (Kelly Reilly) and two kids along on his grand adventure, trying to play dad even as he was planning the next heist. It goes without saying that, once the novelty of life on the lam wears off, Boyd is left emotionally and financially destitute by his choice of career. First-time writer/director Nathan Morlando actually spent time with the real Boyd -- who passed away in 2002 -- and several of his family members and incorporated their memories and stories into the screenplay. Given that remarkable access, it's a shame that Morlando didn't opt to make a documentary instead, as hearing Boyd describe his own exploits would likely have been more compelling than the stiff dramatizations we see here. It doesn't help that Speedman -- a likeable, but decidedly lightweight screen presence -- simply isn't the ideal candidate to play a tortured gangster; although he fares well in the early scenes when Boyd first embarks on his crime spree, his limitations become glaringly apparent as the gangster's circumstances worsen. With no firm hand guiding the proceedings, this potentially interesting slice of Canadian history winds up feeling like just another "Crime Doesn't Pay" PSA.

96 Minutes
A lot can happen in 96 minutes. For example, in writer/director Aimee Lagos's debut feature, that's the amount of time it takes for the lives of four young people to go horribly, tragically wrong. As the movie opens, we're trapped in the backseat of a speeding car watching law student Carley (Brittany Snow) cradling the bleeding body of her friend Lena (Christian Serratos), who moments ago was felled by a stray bullet. Her shooter Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann) and his reluctant accomplice Dre (Evan Ross) are up in front, piloting the vehicle away from the scene of the crime. Although Carley begs for them to take her Lena to a hospital or at the very least leave them somewhere, anywhere along the side of the road, the two boys are too scared to make logical choices. A more formally daring movie may have kept us in that fear and blood-drenched car for 96 minutes of real time drama, but Lagos gives both the audience and the characters some breathing room by regularly flashing back in time to earlier in the day to reveal how and why their paths came to cross. None of the explanations are particularly surprising, but then the film isn't using this device for showy narrative trickery. Rather, Lagos seems more interested in illustrating how an individual's choices shape their destiny rather than random twists of fate. Pursuing this ambition sometimes causes the heavy hand of the screenwriter to weigh down the proceedings in the form of too-convenient story points and questionable character beats. The ensemble cast is also inconsistent; while Snow and Ross find the right mixture of intensity and grace under pressure, Trautmann doesn't inhabit his familiar role as the wanna-be gangster all that effectively. Still, 96 Minutes is a solid debut that indicates Lagos has the skills to craft a stronger, more resonant second feature.

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