NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
This Texan true-life crime drama from writer/director Richard Linklater, based on a magazine article by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, makes an unusual addition to the annals of regional murder, not least because it’s set in Carthage, a reasonably well-off, affable small town rather than the usual trailer park-and-makeout-motel Texas noir setting. It’s dotted with vox pops from real townsfolk expressing their real opinions, though the brilliant anatomisation of Texas (‘it’s really five states’) and the hilarious rants against white trash neighbours are delivered by Sonny Davis, erstwhile star of Last Night at the Alamo (whose late director, Eagle Pennell, gets a dedication); and there’s a minor bit of film/popcult frisson in the realisation that some of this was shot in Bastrop, home of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Mike Moorcock. The use of so many authentic faces and voices in a mosaic harks back to Linklater’s overpopulated Slacker, but here there’s an elusive central thread to bind the picture of a community.
The blunt facts are that confirmed bachelor/pillar of the church Bernie Tiede, a well-liked mortician, took pains to befriend Marjorie Nugent, a much-hated local rich widow. He became her beneficiary and companion, which meant he had a degree of control over her money (which he was generous with) and took trips with her to New York and Russia and other places … but, on the downside, became her personal slave, cursed with a beeper and at her quixotic beck and call. One day, he shot her in the back four times with an ‘armadillo rifle’ (which he was too squeamish to use on an armadillo) and stashed her in the freezer, then said she was laid-up while spending her money for nine months, mostly on gifts for other people and the church. Finally, Marjorie’s relatives forced entry into her home and DA Danny Buck Davidson got the gig of prosecuting a man who confessed to everything but who everyone in town wanted to let off with a mild slap on the wrist. Only by getting the case heard in a different locality and playing up Bernie’s high living to a white trash jury could a conviction be secured.
It’s told as a shaggy dog tale, built around great work from Jack Black – too often seen in crap, lately – as the precise, chubby, ingratiating, sexually ambiguous (‘light in the loafers’) murderer everyone loves. Black, seen under the end credits with the real Bernie, inhabits this oddball role, melding Victor Buono and Dom DeLuise into a roly-poly dynamo,who is a hell of a salesman and the leading light in local musical am-dram (he does spirited takes on ‘I’ve Never Been in Love Before’ and ‘Seventy-Six Trombones) and the church. Shirley MacLaine is also good as Marjorie, blossoming out of caricature meanness when wooed by Bernie but credibly turning into a pathetic tyrant out to crush every trace of independence from her pet – MacLaine never loses sight of the sad old woman in this monster, so the film isn’t as one-sided as it might be. Matthew McConnaughey, continuing his streak of great work after pulling out of a nosedive into midlist pap, is the canny, vain prosecutor who still can’t believe all his neighbours want to let off a man who shot a little old lady and spent her money. Harking back to past Texan values, Buck even characterises Bernie as a back-shooter, which is about as low as you can go in cowboy terms – and people still say the victim was too mean to live (a joke playbill advertises Bernie Tiede in Freezing Miss Daisy) and Bernie too nice to suffer for killing her. An odd, simmering subtext is that these Texans don’t even care whether Bernie is gay or not … which is certainly at odds with the state’s pop culture image.
At the end, it’s still a grey area as to how calculating Bernie Tiede was … but Linklater and Black walk that line carefully (Black’s Bernie has a great walk, displayed in a prison scene) and let the good folks of Carthage tell it like they see it. It’s a funny, sad, colourful and compelling little film.