The Texas Monthly article on the death of Marjorie Nugent at the hands of Bernie Tiede remains one of my favorite longreads (Midnight in the Garden of East Texas). The balance it strikes between affectionate regionalism, sexual oppression, bible belt charity, and cold-blooded murder is straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short. Linklater’s take on the legend of Bernie Tiede lands right in the same groove. The way it interleaves this story with interviews of locals involved with Bernie, Ms. Nugent, and the court case is unforced. Jack Black as the “funeral director” with the perfect timbre for funereal hymns lulls us into Linklater’s off-kilter gravitas.
As the story goes, Bernie befriends Ms. Nugent, a wealthy widower that has become a local pariah for various reasons. Their odd, ambiguously platonic relationship blossoms, and both seem content to let Ms. Nugent bankroll an extravagant lifestyle that leaves the town a bit puzzled (partly because it is quietly assumed that Bernie is gay, or at least “a little light in the loafers”). But Ms. Nugent starts to become possessive of Bernie and his talents, and her constant demands begin to eat into his job at the mortuary and community theater commitments (during which we see Black at his finest – who knew?).
In a near Bressonian moment, Bernie walks into the garage and empties four varmint rifle rounds into her back. Lower right frame: Rifle. Medium shot: Four rounds discharged. Cut to: Body on the floor. He puts her body in a chest freezer and fools the town and her family into thinking she is still alive for months. The scheme unravels when pressed by an ambitious local prosecutor, played a little too broadly by Matthew McConaughey.
A far less interesting film would have explored all of Bernie’s tensions; the motivations, the things that made him snap. But this never happens and even Bernie’s latent homosexuality goes overlooked. Whatever made Bernie pull the trigger becomes diffused in interviews of locals equivocating between their hatred of Marjorie Nugent and Bernie’s charitable affibility. The trial plays out more as an indictment of Bernie’s savior faire rather than the crime itself, the East Texas jury forced to evaluate Bernie’s ability to pair wine with fish and the implications of such knowledge.
Even as far back as Slacker, we can sense Linklater’s interest in regret. His films place people in settings that force them to evaluate past decisions (Tape, Before Sunrise/Sunset) or get nostalgic about things in such a way that we leave his films with a sense of loss, the characters having moved out of the frame to different stages of life (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia). He does a fine job of transmitting Faulkner’s axiom that “the past is never dead, it isn’t even past.” His films are also often shaped by this disorienting effect of regret, such as the moments in Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly where our sense of time and identity flutters off in psychological digression.
Except for Bernie, where we find few hints of regret even though we expect it to appear. It isn’t a horror film by any stretch, but because of its disorienting take on murder, Bernie is best watched as one. It explores the terrifying idea that in hindsight, negotiating regret, remorse, and blame can be problematic even for a town that trades culturally in black and white. In fact, Bernie Tiede still crochets little tidbits for the people that pass through the Carthage mortuary.