Looking Back at 2010s Films: Bernie (2012)

9 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let’s talk about a Richard Linklater film starring Jack Black! (No, it’s not “School of Rock”–if I were talking about movies from the 2000s…)

Something makes Linklater and Black seem to work surprisingly well together. Seeing “School of Rock” at a young age made me a fan of Black’s, and I honestly think Bernie features Black’s best performance of his career. Both movies were directed by Linklater, and both movies showcase Black’s strengths not just as a skilled funnyman but as a damn good actor.

“Bernie” is based on a true story of a murder that took place in Carthage, Texas. The victim was an 80-year-old widowed millionaire. The murderer: her companion, Bernie Tiede. Because Bernie was so well-liked and a beloved member of the community, no one wanted to believe that he was capable of such a horrid act. And when he confessed to it, hardly anyone wanted him imprisoned! So the DA had to arrange a change of venue so that an impartial jury could hear the case.

I’m not making any of this up! Sometimes, real life is stranger than fiction.

Linklater uses an interesting (and brilliant) technique in telling this story. Instead of telling a straight-up dramatization of these events, he mixes documentary conventions with fictional elements. There are many talking-head interviews with the townspeople, some of whom are played by actors…the others are actual townspeople!

On top of that, it’s a dark comedy about a murder committed by someone no one would have thought to have done it……..I don’t think I need to say that some Carthage locals didn’t take to this film particularly well. The DA (played in the film by Matthew McConaughey) brought up an interesting point: that the victim’s side of the story is ignored in favor of a simpler motivation for Bernie to kill her. I can understand that, but at the same time, this story is based on an article surrounding the incident and on testimonials from those were there when the case was opened. Not everyone can know exactly why Bernie did what he did–they can only speculate that it was because Ms. Nugent, the victim, was possessive and taking advantage of Bernie’s goodwill, while others viewing the film can see possible ulterior motives at hand.

(Nugent’s nephew, btw, speculated that the story “pretty much tells the way it happened.”)

And that is why Jack Black’s performance as Bernie Tiede works wonderfully. At first glance, he seems like your jolly, kind-hearted, Ned Flanders type of friendly neighbor who commits an inexcusable act of violence he can’t take back. But watching it again, with the townspeople’s interviews in mind, it’s interesting to see Black in another light that subtly shows that maybe there was something more on his mind…

And of course, Black wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this performance. But, of course, he was nominated for an Indie Spirit Award…because of course. (He was also nominated for a Golden Globe, but who cares about those?)

“Bernie” is an intriguing, grisly, entertaining dark comedy from a brilliant director and an even-more-brilliant leading man……….Now let’s talk about what happened AFTER this film’s release. An Austin attorney saw the film, met with the real Bernie Tiede in prison, and reopened the case to address issues not previously mentioned. Bernie was released from his life sentence on bail and had to live with Linklater, who had an open garage apartment at his house in Austin. This led to a controversy amongst the DA and Nugent’s family because there was no future prosecution and a FILM helped a man get out of a life sentence way too early. The DA even finally agreed that Bernie probably deserved a lesser sentence. And then, a couple of years after he was released, Bernie had a resentencing hearing…and Bernie was sentenced to 99 years to life in prison.

Oh, and here’s an…interesting…tidbit………..there’s a scene in Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” in which someone opens a refrigerator and a cat runs out of it. (“Why is there a cat in the fridge?”) Bernie Tiede is credited as “Cat Wrangler”…Bernie Tiede hid Ms. Nugent’s body in a freezer……when you really think about it, that’s all kinds of messed up!!

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