Cosmetizing the corpse: Richard Linklater's Bernie

With the population explosion, the greying of the baby boomers, and the inevitable die-off, one wonders about the occasional odd placement of dead bodies. One hears of a mismanaged crematory in Noble, Georgia that had corpses stacked in odd places in the backyard. Another woman entombed herself in a blanket in her car for 16 months before someone discovered her. In Richard Linklater's Bernie (based on a true story), the big mystery is not how Bernie kills the oppressive "mean old hateful bitch" (as the locals call her) rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) since he confesses to shooting her in the back four times with her "armadillo" rifle, but what he does with her body afterwards. The film opens with Bernie (a pleasantly muted Jack Black) demonstrating to an audience of would-be morticians how to "cosmetize" a corpse for an open casket funeral. He shows how you must Super-glue the eyes shut, prevent "lip-drift" of the mouth, take extra care to clean the nose and ears of hairs, and watch for applying too much rouge (a common mistake amongst morticians). In contrast to his portrait of the hipster youthful Austin world of Slacker (1991) (which holds up well), Linklater now focuses his lens upon the already semi-embalmed and very square (one could say Methodist) small-town milieu of Carthage, Texas and its weird loving relationship with the highly sympathetic community booster and assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede.

At times resembling Errol Morris' classic documentary Gates of Heaven (1978) with its nearly mockumentary interviews of people mourning their pets in California, Bernie includes much semi-satirical footage of Carthage locals (mostly played by actors) confiding their affection for Bernie (who gave large amounts of Marjorie's money to community businesses, churches, and individuals) and their hatred for Marjorie (described as "holding her nose so high, she'd drown in a rainstorm"). Bernie directs and stars in musicals for the local community theater, sings at funerals, dotes on the older widows, leads the influential Christmas decorating committee, and describes himself as a "people person." Portly and inclined to wear Tommy Hilfiger clothes, Bernie earns some gossipy attention once he manages to schmooze his way into taking long first-class vacations with Marjorie to New York City and Europe, but once she signs over her millions to him in her will, he becomes her virtual slave, doomed to watch her chew her refried beans 25 times per bite at the local Tex/Max restaurant, wash her underthings, and suffer her frequent rages when he doesn't jump like a small dog to her bidding fast enough. As he says during a drama practice, "If I don't call her, she will give me living hell."

After enough of this cloying torment, Bernie just snaps, gunning Marjorie down in the garage.  He then pulls a Talented Mr. Ripley deception on the people of Carthage by keeping anyone from noticing her absence, and by giving her money away to anyone who asked for help. Through it all, Jack Black restrains his tendency to comedic excess, acting like someone eager to get beyond Gulliver's Travels and Kung Fu Panda 2. Shirley MacLaine is effective but also diminished as a hateful witch. Also, Matthew McConaughey helps out as Danny Buck, the local criminal-stalking District Attorney, but I found his star presence distracting amidst all of the small-town folksy lesser-known actors.

Bernie works best when it sticks closely to Skip Hollandsworth's TexasMonthly article "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas," with its colorful local details ("Boot Scootin' Western Wear"), its turns of speech (Bernie described as being "a little light in the loafer"), its kitschy households, and its emphasis on the bizarre way in which Carthagians blithely sought Bernie's acquittal after he confessed to murder. Through his grotesque portrait of elderly beauty pageants, mawkish funerals, and ersatz Reader's Digest-enhanced hypocrisy, Linklater calls attention to the latent rage that underlies class divisions. No matter how community-supportive they may be, people still resent becoming the servile property of the rich.      


Craig said…
I thought this was slight but enjoyable, and I might have liked it better had I gone in knowing nothing about it. I'm glad you mentioned Gates of Heaven; surprised I haven't read it elsewhere. Fine as McConaughey is, I hope he retires his fictional law degree after this.
Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt also comes to mind, with its widow-killer theme.

I like Linklater's movies. Here, he appears to have moved into a subversive country/gospel phase. I wonder if the film feels slight because he stuck so close to recreating the truth. Jack Black dancing around like a deranged Yankee Doodle Dandy evokes scenes of the Reaganite underground society of A Boy and His Dog.
Craig said…
I liked the "Music Man" analogy in the film, the blithe charmer who cons a town into falling for him. Part of me wishes the movie had a sharper edge, but that's never been Link's style. Poker-faced deadpan is about as edgy as he gets.

Whereas Slacker and Dazed and Confused concern themselves with youthful attempts at freedom (I like the way Slacker dispenses with a central point of view altogether), Bernie is more about adult forms of entrapment. Bernie's buyaholic binges oblige him to cater to rich widows, and he proves unable, out of a sense of social obligation, to tell Marjorie to piss off when she gets oppressive (and when she includes him in her will). I've never thought about Linklater's style in terms of "poker-faced deadpan." The movie's satirical treatment of the funeral industry struck me as subtly edgy in its way.