Film Review: Bernie

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Texas Black Humor.  I like it.  “Bernie” weaves the deep, sleepy, insular, self-observed culture of small-town East Texas with the drama of civility, self-promotion and manners and the ramp-up to a murder that united the town of Carthage, Texas around their beloved villain.  This is a town that embraced their inner killer.  While this kind of thing pops up from time to time everywhere in the world, this film, based on a true story, is firmly set in East Texas and the people raised there.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I have lived most of my life in West Texas before settling in Austin—an island of blue liberalism in a sea of red.  I appreciate the attention to regional culture and detail laid out by Linklater illustrating how diverse Texas is after all these years as he sets the stage for the story. And East Texas is truly a world unto itself.

As I watched the film I initially wondered if it was over-the-top camp but then relaxed into all those collective memories from my past: the hymns from the church services, the wooden placard on the church wall with attendance and contribution numbers, the niceties.  It is an immersion you have to experience to understand the characters in the film fully at first, but wait for it, be open and their world will begin to make sense. All this comfort is countered by the chewing wit and wrath of Shirley MacLaine playing Marjorie Nugent, (talk about mean and direct) an extremely wealthy widow at the center of the story, soon to be deceased, thoroughly unliked by all.  Into her life comes Bernie,  an assistant funereal home director who has inserted himself in civic activities throughout the community, as leader of the church choir (Jack Black’s voice is given the free reign it deserves) and director of the community theater “seventy-six trombones in the big parade” (incredible display).  Everyone loves Bernie, especially the widows whom he comforts in their loss.  And the widow Marjorie Nugent becomes, after a period of time spent with Bernie, dismissive of her family and cuts them out of her will in favor of Bernie. So, why did Bernie kill his meal-ticket?  You will just have to go find out.  Picture yourself on the jury, with Matthew McConaughey as the camera-happy Danny Buck, the self-absorbed and self-aware prosecutor determined to put Bernie away.  Nice suit.

The interview approach of Director Linklater’s 1991 film “Slacker” is, in fundamental ways, carried forward in “Bernie”.  But instead of interviews with the characters frequenting spots such as the hipster café Les Amis in 1980’s Austin, “Bernie” travels behind the piney curtain of mid-1990’s East Texas to interview the participants in this real-life dark comedy.   Some of the interviewees and residents almost steal the film.  Who would not kill for such a story such as this: funeral home, propriety, class, family, church and murder in a small town?

My hope is that non-Texan viewers will understand these characters as representations of real people and not as caricatures.  The film is a hybrid, using real participants as documentarians and actors, an approach that harkens back to the classic Italian Neo-Realist practice of using ordinary citizens as actors.  They are the ones who know the events best and it is best to use them as the story-tellers.  “Bernie” is a dark tale and a fun ride, hosted by the small town where it all occurred.

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Phillip Poplin is a painter, provocateur, historian, art and movie critic and a local Austin Attorney to boot.

Phillip Poplin

Bernie (2011)

Director: Richard Linklater

Writers: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth

Producer: 20th Castle Rock Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 104 minutes

Starring: Jack Black, Shirlie MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey


below: Bernie Pre-Review from Austin Above Ground

Introducing Film and Art Critic Phillip Poplin

Phillip Poplin

New Kid on the Block Phillip Poplin will join Austin Above Ground as resident Film and Art Critic.  Phillip is a painter, provocateur, historian, art and movie critic and a local Austin Attorney to boot.  Homeboy’s got both hemispheres working on full capacity.   Phillip’s regular column will be called Poplin’s Pix.  If your taste runs to the well known and popular, you might want to give his Film and Art reviews a pass.  But if you want insightful, deliciously irreverent movie reverence from an artist’s perspective, you won’t want to miss his featured column.

Look For Poplin’s Pix to begin running…SOON at a monitor near you.

Wilco Backdrop Video – Austin’s Bat Cow

BatCow hanging from the Congress/Ann Richards bridge is about as good of a single visual to represent Austin as I can imagine. Having it hover above Wilco as they play in the ACL theater is about as appropriate a staging for an Austin concert as any Wilco fan could dream up. Wilco is sponsoring a contest for fans from each city they are touring to submit video to be projected behind them during their concert in that town. This video strives to capture the spirit of Austin, and since it already includes a bliss dip in Barton Springs, all that is left is to Show Me Your Taco.

To view Full Screen, roll your cursor over the video and click on the four outward arrows just to the left of the Vimeo logo.

Or click here to watch the video on the Vimeo site:

Wilco Contest – Austin’s Bat Cow