Sunday, September 2, 2012

Small Town Satire Poses Big Questions -- Reflections on "Bernie" (2012)

How 'bout some bubble bath and cupcakes before I kill you?

One of the great short stories ever written about the South was Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” about a hermit-like small town girl whose death brings all of the townsfolk down to her home to talk about the mystery surrounding her abrupt demise. The entire story is told through the collective lens of the townspeople and their gossip – perhaps making them the least reliable narrators ever. But what the story did was capture the familiar feeling of the small town, the “everybody being in everybody’s business” mindset, and the unified sameness of the group as a whole.

Richard Linklater’s 14 years in the making film, Bernie, goes for a similar theme, and while it may not achieve the genius of Faulkner’s tale, it is quite effective as both a satire and a social commentary. Linklater’s resume is populated with several films dealing with community, from the rightfully unfocused Slacker to the rambunctious Dazed & Confused, to the sweet-tempered School of Rock, but none of them do more than celebrate their communities for their idiosyncrasies. Bernie is a dark comedy that reveals the hypocritical underbelly of our otherwise nostalgic feelings about small town life. As with most excellent satires, it also holds a mirror for us to take a closer look at our own prejudices and assumptions.

Bernie is based on a true story about Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a small town assistant funeral director who murdered the wealthiest – and meanest – woman in Carthage, Texas, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). We learn Bernie’s story through the tales of Carthage’s gossips, who paint Bernie as a sweet, loving, generous man – the sort of man they are unwilling to believe could murder someone in cold blood, even though Bernie confessed to the crime. They tell us how Bernie met Marjorie through the funeral for her late husband, and how they became companions. There is tons of speculation on the nature of their relationship, and Bernie’s motivation for killing Marjorie, but the end result is the same: either Bernie didn’t do it, or Marjorie deserved it.

Linklater’s best decision here as a filmmaker is not showing us either Bernie’s or Marjorie’s side of the story. This forces us to make up our own mind as an audience. Are we okay with murder, if the murderer is a kind, god-fearing man who seems to have made a mistake in the heat of passion, and the victim is a cruel, insufferable, bitchy racist who is despised even by her own family? Does context every justify a crime? Are we okay with allowing a killer to walk free just because we like him? By never giving us Bernie’s perspective, we are left to trust the – possibly – untrustworthy opinions of Carthage gossips. And they are quite a good group of people. They are convincing enough that they even make the story’s hero, District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), look like an incompetent jerk who just can’t see the truth that’s right before his eyes.

As a satire, Bernie hits all the right marks, giving us insight into the workings of a small town, and ultimately into the workings of America. Bernie was not just a good man, but an incredibly generous one; he used Marjorie’s wealth to help everyone in need – local businesses, the church, families. Is that how we are as Americans – completely okay with letting others do wrong so long as our lives are moderately prosperous and comfortable? What’s the end result of being so complacent? The story of Bernie Tiede, and the reaction of Carthage’s people, spotlights our own complacency and unwillingness to see the motives of others. Just because your heart is in the right place doesn’t make your actions any more acceptable.

This film seems slight because the scope of its subject matter, and presentation of its narrative is so limited in scope, but when you contemplate the implications of its resolution, you may find yourself with a lot to consider about the state of affairs, not just in America, or the world, but in your own life.

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