I recently realized something while I was working on my autobiography. By the time I turned 12, I had really been around!
When I was growing up, my family moved around a lot. By the time that my mom, my sisters, and I moved back to Texas for the final time, I had lived in a total of 6 states: Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Louisiana. Whenever I’m asked which one of those six states was my favorite, I always say — without a moment of hesitation — Texas. Don’t get me wrong — those other five states are all wonderful but I’m a Texas girl. It’s where I was born, it’s where the majority of my family lives, and it’s where I attended and graduated from college. I love traveling and I love seeing the world but, in my heart, I know that I’ll always return to Texas.
Unfortunately, the rest of America rarely seems to love my homestate as much as I do. It never ceases to amaze me how many people — who have obviously never even been here! — consider themselves to be an expert on Texas. They talk about George W. Bush. They talk about the Kennedy assassination. They talk about Rick Perry and Ted Cruz. They talk about oil. They talk about guns. They talk about these things as if a state as huge and populous as Texas can be defined by only a few issues or citizens. That may be true of a tiny state like Vermont but there’s a lot more variety to Texas than any outsider will ever be able to understand.
Movies rarely get Texas right. I’ve lost count of the number of films that have tried to portray north Texas as being a desert or having mountains. And don’t even get me started on how terrible most actors sound when they try to imitate our accent! Fortunately, Texas has its own set of native filmmakers, true artists who are capable of making movies that both criticize and celebrate Texas without descending to the level of elitist caricature. One of the best of them is Richard Linklater and 2012’s Bernie is one of his best films.
Bernie tells the true story of Bernie Tiede. In 1996, Bernie (played, quite well, by Jack Black) was perhaps the most popular citizen of Carthage, Texas. Along with being the leader of the church choir (which is always an important position in small town Texas), Bernie was also an assistant funeral director who was known for always saying exactly the right thing to a grieving family. As a 38 year-old bachelor, Bernie was also the center of a lot of small town gossip, especially after he became the constant companion of the town’s richest (and, some would say, meanest) woman, 81 year-old Marge Nugent (played, in the film, by Shirley MacClaine).
When Bernie announces that Marge has had a stroke and is currently away in a hospital, the people of Carthage have no reason to doubt him. Since Marge was usually such an unpleasant person to be around, most are just fine with not having to deal with her personally. They’re even happier when Bernie suddenly starts to donate large sums of money to his neighbors, local businesses, and the church.
However, Marge’s accountant has his doubts about Bernie’s claims. With the help of Marge’s previously estranged family, he convinces the local police to search Marge’s house. That’s where they discover Marge’s body in a freezer, dead as a result of being shot four times in the back with an armadillo gun. A tearful Bernie confesses to the murder, saying that Marge was just so mean to him that he eventually snapped.
District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (played by a hilariously slick Matthew McConaughey) charges Bernie with first degree murder but soon discovers that — despite the fact that Bernie has confessed — it might not be so easy to get a conviction. The people of Carthage may have hated Marge but, even more importantly, they absolutely loved Bernie. Danny Buck is forced to file a motion to move the trial to nearby San Augustine County (which is, as the film correctly points out, the squirrel-hunting capitol of the world) and the citizens of Carthage wait to see if their most beloved citizen is convicted of murder.
Bernie was one of my favorite films of 2012 but I have to admit that, when it came to write this review, I was a little worried about rewatching it. If there’s anything that often suffers upon repeat viewing, it’s quirkiness and Bernie is nothing if not quirky. However, I’m happy to say that Bernie was just as effective on a second viewing as it was on the first. Jack Black’s performance remains the best of his career and, in the role of Marge, Shirley MacClaine deftly brought to life a type that should be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a small town. When I first saw the film, it seemed like Matthew McConaughey occasionally went a bit overboard in the role of Danny Buck Davidson but, on a second viewing, it was obvious that, as flamboyantly as McConaughey played the role, he never allowed Danny Buck to become a caricature. The film’s unique structure — which is made up of a combination of scenes with actors and interviews with the actual citizens of Carthage — also held up surprisingly well. Those interviews are the key to the film’s success because, otherwise, it’s doubtful that anyone would believe that this story actually happened.
But ultimately, I think the reason that Bernie worked the first time I saw it and why it continued to work when I watched it again is because Richard Linklater is from Texas. Can you imagine if an outsider had come down here and tried to make a movie out of the story of Bernie Tiede? It probably would have ended up being one of the most condescending movies ever made, full of actors from up north trying to sound Texan. And that would have been a shame because Bernie is a uniquely Texan story and, as such, it’s a story that could only be properly told by someone who knows the state.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely some pointed humor to be found in Bernie‘s portrayal of life in small town Texas. The sequence where various citizens of Carthage are asked whether or not Bernie was gay (“That dog don’t hunt,” one woman says after explaining that Bernie couldn’t be gay because he led the church choir) is just one example. But the difference between Linklater’s approach and the approach that one might expect from a non-Texan is that Linklater allows the citizens of Carthage to have their dignity even as he pokes some gentle fun at them. As a native Texan, Linklater portrays our state — flaws and all — honestly, without any of the elitist posturing that we’ve come to expect from northern filmmakers.
And, as a result, Bernie is one of the best films ever made about both Texas and small town life.
As for the real life Bernie Tiede, he was released from prison in May of this year, under the condition that he live with Richard Linklater in Austin.