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From Under A Rock: Bernie

January 30, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
Bernie Jack Black
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From Under A Rock: Bernie  

Aaron picked Linklater for me last week, so I wanted to return the favor with an often overlooked film that he made that tells a fascinating story.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron chose Before Sunset. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him Bernie.

Released: April 27th, 2012
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth
Jack Black as Bernie Tiede
Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck Davidson
Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie Nugent

Michael Ornelas: I saw this film opening day because I’d heard Jack Black — who I adore — was actually getting award buzz for a drama he was in. Naturally, my interest was piqued and I came away with a movie I enjoyed for many more reasons than Black’s performance.

Aaron Hubbard: This movie got my attention right away with its unique opening scene, and kept it the whole way through. I enjoyed this pick a fair amount.
Capturing a Culture
Michael: I grew up in Texas (as did Richard Linklater), and in watching this movie, I have to commend his ability to make the state come to life. It’s the actors he casts, it’s the dialogue he writes, it’s the set decorations…it’s the simplicity of his shot composition. All these things come together to feel like home to me, and it’s fascinating to see how a few artistic decisions can really capture an essence like that.

Aaron: That Texas setting comes up quite a bit in his films, including Boyhood and especially Everybody Wants Some!!. I live a bit north of Texas so I can’t relate to every bit of it, but certain aspects certainly connected with me anyway. The small town gossip felt like home, but especially the film’s loving roast of small town church culture. The script isn’t afraid to poke fun at aspects of Bernie’s congregation, but there’s an affection there that I think was vital to making this movie’s plot work.

Michael: It’s clear that the film’s demographic included those it was “lovingly roasting” as you put it, and I think that speaks to the affection that Linklater put into it. It strikes me as a story that Bernie’s congregation could watch and eat up while realizing that their eccentricities are front and center. This movie couldn’t have been set anywhere else and been anything close to the same thing. Much like Fargo’s distinct local identity, Linklater has mastered that with Texas.
Perspective is Everything
Aaron: Mockumentary doesn’t usually resonate with me, often because it comes across as overly fake. But I think Linklater struck a good mix of interesting characters and worthwhile things to say here. I was originally curious as to why Bernie was never interviewed himself, or why the movie needed to be constructed this way in the first place. Then I realized; it’s all about getting us to understand how Bernie was thought of. It shows us the perspective and when the movie explains how well-liked Bernie is, it makes sense right away.

Michael: I wouldn’t call the film a mockumentary, really. Sure, some people are interviewed, but even those are actors. I didn’t even view it as a dark comedy, although it appears that was the intent? To me it was a dramatic character study with quirks. I was fascinated by Bernie (and immediately sympathetic to him, as portrayed in the movie) because he built up so much goodwill with the people of Carthage. He’s infectious, and it’s hard to dislike him. I can understand killing Marjorie as a kneejerk reaction, but keeping her in a freezer for 9 months, through whatever lens you’d like to view it, is monstrous. The movie goes to great lengths to not portray Bernie negatively, but when you take the facts of the matter and truly think about them…it may be harmful.

Aaron: I’m more alluding to the style in which it’s shot, not so much the end goal of it. I thought it was clever subversion to use a technique we’re familiar with but to intentionally sway us to a viewpoint we maybe shouldn’t have. Which is kind of a cool commentary on documentaries, now that I think about it. I also think Linklater is one of the few directors who could pull this off convincingly, as his realistic dialogue has always been his strong point.
A Story Influencing Reality
Michael: One of the biggest takeaways from this movie for me was to look into the real life case and to see how it differed from the portrayal in the film. Understandably, the family of Marjorie Nugent adamantly opposes the film’s message because not everything in reality fit the narrative of painting Bernie as this saint of a man. Add in the fact that you have the always lovable Jack Black at the helm, and they’ve been taken on a ride, having to prove Bernie Tiede’s guilt in court not once, not twice, but three times to keep him behind bars. There are at least two sides to every experience and when a film only really shows one, it’s hard to separate the truth from the story we see on screen.

Aaron: I’ll be honest, I didn’t know this movie was about a real case until they started showing photos. It felt like such a Hollywood plot, having to move Bernie’s trial from one town to another. I feel like the film is a bit irresponsible in how it plays up sympathy and even humor from what is a pretty cut and dry murder case. Not that it detracts from the quality, but it certainly cast the movie in a slightly different light.

Michael: It’s easy to see Jack Black as the likable dude who murdered his oppressor on a whim, and used her vast fortune for personal gain in a script, but when you put real people behind it, it really takes the wind out of my sails. Even at the top of this column, I hadn’t read as much on the subject matter as I have now and it, sadly, kind of detracts from the experience for me. The movie itself divided the real Carthage, TX, with some citing a potential increase in tourism and interest as a positive result, while respect for the dead is something that those who are anti-Bernie are saying. I see both, and while I don’t want to be a bummer, it’s easy to pick a side when someone’s life was taken from them.

Aaron: I feel a bit divided on where the film lands for me here. Ultimately, I think I can separate the work of art from the questionable aspects. What can I say, I’m a sucker for films that make you question how much you should trust how media warps something around. So for me, I’m going to go with what I feel like the film deserves on its own merit.


Michael: As a film, this movie works on pretty much all levels. It’s simplistic, but well-paced, well-acted, well-directed, and it’s an interesting story. But when I considered what the mere existence of the film and the bias it portrays…it definitely dampened my experience with the movie. Due to friends in high places (Hollywood), the real Bernie was granted several retrials despite very clearly having murdered somebody, and it’s put the surviving family through hell. He may be a likable person in real life, but it’s an irresponsible use of power and influence (especially because fans of the movie are going to jump on the “defending Bernie” bandwagon even though most of their knowledge has been fed to them solely by Linklater, and their image of him is Jack Black). That complicates my rating quite a bit. Originally, it was an A-.


Aaron: I can’t disagree too much with that point of view. Kind of a bummer, isn’t it?

Michael: Yeah…ignorance is bliss.

What’s your viewpoint on how this narrative has manipulated people’s view of the truth?

Next week:

Aaron: I’ve been looking forward to making this pick for a long time; it’s one of my favorite sci-fi action movies this decade.
Michael: I’m not a Tom Cruise fan at all, but the further we get from this movie, the more I hear it brought up as a truly kick ass film. I’m looking forward to checking it out!

Aaron: Fortunately, not liking Tom Cruise makes this probably the best Tom Cruise movie to watch.

What movies do you think deserved to do better at the box office than they did?

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The final score: review Good
The 411
Like most Richard Linklater films, Bernie is an excellently written film with good performances and a plot that's just a little off from the norm. Jack Black may be at his absolute best here, not only managing the accent and the lovely singing, but making the title character both sympathetic and pathetic. The real life events and especially how things were drawn out after this release does cast a shadow on the film, but it's a quality piece of entertainment if you can get past that.