I finally saw Richard Linklater's Bernie. And it's wonderful - bright and funny, eccentric but finely tuned, rich and ambitious but unassuming. Jack Black gives the performance of a lifetime as real life funeral director turned hapless murderer Bernie Tiede. Shirley MacLaine is great as always as the wealthy, bitter, old widow Marjorie Nugent, and Matthew McConaughey completes his hat trick of terrific 2011 performances, along with Killer Joe and The Lincoln Lawyer, as small town district attorney Danny Buck.
Bernie is, in a word, delightful. It's a smart and surprisingly profound film packaged in the weirdest sort of charm, and I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone. But there is one particular angle of Bernie that impresses me most, and that's Linklater's clear-eyed, inveterate depiction of the incredibly strange part of the world where I grew up: deep East Texas.
How is East Texas different from Houston or Austin or Dallas? Let this cute old man from Bernie tell you from his spot at the table at the local barbecue joint:
Behind the Pine Curtain, that's where I grew up. So much so, in fact, that my dad's first published collection of newspaper columns is titled just that, Behind and Beyond the Pine Curtain. It's a place like no other - tiny little towns all piled up on one another, surrounded by big, beautiful pines but also strips of crappy car lots and pawn shops. The people who live there can be some of the kindest, friendliest, most generous people you've ever known, but they can also be small-minded and judgmental. Lots of churches, lots of meth labs. It's a weird place. I love it; I hate it. And Bernie totally nailed it.
Bernie is based on the article "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas" published by Skip Hollandsworth in the January 1998 edition of Texas Monthly, a brilliant publication with some of the best articles and photography in print today. The article and film (co-written by Hollandsworth and Linklater) tell the true story of Bernie Tiede, a beloved funeral director from the town of Carthage, population 6,500. After Bernie befriends, then kills, one of the meanest women in town, district attorney Danny Buck has an awfully hard time finding anyone who wants to convict the sweet, effeminate man who comforts every bereaved citizen, runs the community theatre group, volunteers in every local capacity and sings in church each Sunday.
Linklater cast a passel of extras (as mockumentary talking heads) from locals around Carthage. My parents go to church with a few of the little white-haired ladies who sing Bernie's praises throughout the film. I never could have doubted that those were real deep East Texas residents - it's an accent I've fought hard to suppress my entire adult life, but I'd know it anywhere, and it can't be feigned. Jack Black does a pretty good job of it, MacLaine's okay, but Matthew McConaughey - who went to the same high school as my mom and dad - well, he sounds right at home. It's actually what bugged me most about Charlie Wilson's War, a movie I love about the member of the United States House of Representatives who lived two blocks from me in Lufkin, Texas. Tom Hanks is fantastic in the film, but he sounds more like he's from Georgia than Lufkin. Now McConaughey - that fella's East Texas all the way.
Bernie's setting is another element that just couldn't be faked. Those big loblolly pines, the clear air and tiny downtown store-fronts with brightly colored awnings, they look just right. But it's not only the people and the setting that Linklater captured in Bernie - no, it's the details. Bernie attends the First United Methodist Church of Carthage where he sings hymns that any southern Methodist probably knows by heart. It's been years since I've heard songs like "Love Lifted Me" or "Blessed Assurance," but I sang along without missing a beat. It was odd.
Bernie eats Tex-Mex at the Jalapeno Tree where I've stopped for queso and enchiladas many times on my way to visit my grandparents in Longview. Danny Buck busts several men for skipping on child support payments at the annual Longview Hands on a Hardbody contest, which is funny because McConaughey actually contributed to the making of the documentary about that very contest in 1997. Bernie's trial ends up being moved to San Augustine, "the squirrel hunting capital of the world." I lived there for a few years of my childhood and I can attest to the barbecue joint man's snobbery when he says that San Augustine residents have "more tattoos than teeth and not a brain cell among 'em." The slang ("That dog don't hunt"), the stores (Boot Scootin' Western Wear), the way folks say " 'preciate ya" instead of "thank you" or "goodbye" when they get off the phone: it's eerie. It's specific. It's East Texas.
Richard Linklater is from Houston, and although that's only a couple hundred miles from Carthage, I can promise you as an adult Houston resident that they're worlds apart. That he took the time and made the effort to capture the most minute details of that inscrutable universe, the enigma behind the Pine Curtain, is laudable indeed. Bernie is East Texas - and East Texas is weird as hell. Fortunately, it's also funny as hell, and Bernie is the most agreeable combination of both.