My 27th column for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, formerly known as Cahiers du Cinéma España, which appeared, I believe, in their July-August 2012 issue. — J.R.
I have a habit as a critic that I suspect irritates some of my readers. When I find that my opinion about a new film differs substantially from that of the mainstream, I sometimes theorize that the reasons for this must be ideological. In this manner, I speculated that the immoderate fascination of other Americans with the mad serial killers of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and No Country for Old Men (2007), which somehow seemed motivated by a twisted identification with them -– and especially with the capacity and eagerness of these psychotics to kill innocent people without any compunctions — were related to the fact that these films came out during the first and second Gulf wars, when Americans were killing innocent people with no compunctions at all, and sometimes even exhibiting comparable displays of glee about this mindless activity.
More recently, I’ve been puzzling over the fact that Richard Linklater’s latest feature, Bernie, a masterpiece that has been clearly delighting many of the audiences that come to see it, was only released after many delays, wasn’t sent to Cannes, and has been doing poorly at the box office — a fate similar to that of Linklater’s previous feature, Me and Orson Welles (2011), another treasured project which took him many years to finance, and one also dominated by a remarkable central performance (Christian McKay as Orson Welles, Jack Black as Bernie Tiede).
Although I’m still unclear about why Me and Orson Welles wasn’t more successful — apart from a strange reluctance of the public to go to any films by or about Orson Welles, despite an enduring fascination with him as a mythical figure — the commercial problems with Bernie may relate once more to a feeling of ambivalence about its own central figure, also modeled on a real person. Bernie Tiede — a former assistant funeral director in a small town in East Texas, not far from where Linklater himself grew up — is currently serving a life term in prison for having murdered Marjorie Nugent, roughly twice his age, the wealthiest widow in town(played in the film by Shirley MacLaine), whom he was living with, and whose body he chopped up and stored in a freezer. What makes this familiar-sounding crime story unusual is that Tiede, despite the fact that he was actively gay, was the most beloved figure in his community for his generous philanthropy, while Nugent was the most hated for her mean-spirited selfishness. Tiede’s trial even had to take place in another country in order to ensure an “impartial” jury.
Without ever establishing conclusively whether its protagonist is gay (which it implicitly and plausibly treats as irrelevant). Bernie mainly recounts this story through members of this community, played by a mix of real locals and actors, and emerges, improbably, as an affectionate celebration of small-town life — a position that could not be more politically incorrect nowadays, especially coming from a politically progressive filmmaker during a period of American history that seems so reactionary that a major political candidate for U.S. President (Rick Santorum) could recently remark, “Europeans have no reason to live.” Remaining fully aware of this contradiction, Linklater even suggests that Tiede may have been found guilty in part because he knew more about French wine than most of his neighbors .
Without being at all blind to these people’s absurdities, Linklater never treats them with any trace of snobbish superiority, and this may be his most audacious form of tragicomic enlightenment. (Some American critics have even complained about the film’s lack of malice — wishing it were more sarcastic, like the Coen brothers.) Like William Faulkner, Richard Linklater somehow remains both a small-town regionalist and a highly sophisticated universal humanist, which almost sounds today like a contradiction in terms.