Friday, July 6, 2012
With its serene perversity, Richard Linklater’s Bernie could easily be taken for the modern-day equivalent of Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Admittedly, the comedy of Chaplin’s film is several shades blacker—save for that flash of righteous moralizing near the end—but both films balance an almost naïve sweetness with a pitiless glimpse into the void. Bernie’s final mincing jailhouse walk even evokes the famous closing shot of Chaplin’s film, where his bluebeard killer totters forth like the Tramp. But beyond such surprising synchronicities, there is also the sense that both of these killers are the true lovers of their victims, their violence not a contradiction of that love but an extension of it. Mrs. Nugent, the blackhearted widow who is the first and only victim of Bernie Tiede, offers no shortage of motives to an eager killer, from her controlling ways to her casual cruelties. Surely only someone who cared so deeply for the old woman could kill her for the simple fact she chews her food too much.
But Linklater’s film is also a tricky beast of its own breed, and its portrait of small-town life is no less pointed for its fond familiarity with the setting. The citizens of Catharge, Texas—the location of the real-life crime that inspired the film—appear as a kind of gossiper’s chorus, providing colour commentary on the murder trial and rising to Bernie’s defence. Real people speaking scripted lines, they create a disjunction between fact and fiction more disturbing than any of the film’s dark comedy (the appearance of Jack Black and Bernie Tiede himself together during the credits even provoked gasps from several audience members). Of course, the film is all about disjunction: the truth is that Bernie killed someone, but the truth is also that he is a good man. How do you reconcile that? It’s a strange morality that damns a woman for not going to church yet forgives a man for stuffing her corpse in a freezer, but Linklater approaches these contradictions without judgement or disdain. His depiction of small-town life is as openhearted and brutal as Bernie himself—faithful love, and four shots in the back.