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Retrospective: Richard Linklater Part Five: People Will Talk

By the time I first heard about Richard Linklater’s 2011 filmBernie, I had seen most of his work. I had been entertained and moved in an incredible range of ways by SlackerDazed and ConfusedWaking Life, and certainly by the trilogy he has created with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and others. I enjoyed movies likeSubUrbiaSchool of RockThe Newtown Boys, and Me and Orson Wellesfor various reasons, all the while marveling at Linklater’s ability to be versatile within his own distinct filmmaking style. I was annoyed by the ways in which films like The Bad News Bears and Fast Food Nation failed to live up to the potential suggested by the talent involved.

In other words, when I first read something online about Linklater working on a film about the 1996 murder trial of an East Texas mortician, the victim being an 81-year-old millionaire, I was already a fan of Linklater’s films. I already had the Austin, Texas writer and director observing a pretty firmly-fixed position on the list of filmmakers who are going to at least intrigue me, no matter what they might have coming down the pike. These are the people I love to talk about. They have motivated me creatively, given me inspiration to travel, and reminded me of the possibilities inherent in every creepy and ravishing face in the room.

Most importantly, the best filmmakers whose work has cut and bled into so many different areas of my life have created films that remind me constantly of the vast array of impressions people have of their world. They strive to create personal visions of those worlds, all the while remaining aware that their world exists in a much larger universe, madly swirling around them at a thousand miles per hour.

Although there are some movies I like just because car-go-boom-and-then-man-fall-down-the-stairs-and-crash-land-on-the-drunk-midget.

But even those movies play into the whole point I am forever trying to explain about films. Like my favorite books and albums, even as 2013 is getting ready to hit the road, even as I am getting close to the potential Depression-era carnival that will make up my 30s, movies can do just about anything. They can be guilty pleasures, deeply personal for all parties involved, a simple ride, or a complex conversation. My favorite filmmakers reflect my great fondness for what I have so far discovered about film as a multifaceted source of encouragement, and as a medium for telling stories, making points, and revealing more than I would be able to see on my own.

Richard Linklater has been on that list for a long time. His track record is such that his name, and a plot along the lines of what Bernie first suggested to me, is more than enough to keep my not-so-inner film geek fresh-faced and wide-eyed.

Bernie is more than just one of the richest dark comedies I’ve seen in at least a few years. It’s a masterful collection of filmmaking and storytelling touches by Linklater (although co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, who also wrote the original source material, certainly lends a lot to the script, too). Everything works together to create a film that is one of the best pieces of evidence we’re possibly ever going to get, regarding the notion that he is one of the most important writer/directors of the past twenty-five years.

The best Richard Linklater films are those that could not have come from anyone else, and yet can each in their own way stand alone as remarkably unique cinematic achievements. Bernie in a number of ways is capable of holding its own with anything else Linklater has done as a director or writer. It is a movie that was clearly conceived by a mind that hasn’t fallen into a pattern of telling a story that anyone who knows his work can predict from the opening credits to the end. It is very much a Richard Linklater film, and there are several things throughout that make this clear to us.

By this point, we should know that Linklater is capable of moviemaking that stands in two distinct camps. Bernie is very much a movie made by someone of his singular style and voice. Yet there is nothing else in his filmography that is even remotely similar to it. Bernie easily assumes both of these identities. Linklater is the key influence in the movie’s ability to pull off dual roles, but there are a lot of other elements helping, as well. There are the invaluable contributions from Hollandsworth. There are also a number of performances that are individually so perfect in their own way, picking one that could stand above the rest is impossible.

The stars of the movie are indeed Shirley MacLaine, Jack Black, and Matthew McConaughey. Even though I’m coming across more and more recent films that are making me say things like “Son of a bitch, but that McConaughey bastard was actually pretty good in that”, I still want to say something smug about how he should probably just stick to Richard Linklater movies for the rest of his career, since that seems to be when I like him best.

Matthew McConaughey in Bernie (Image © Millennium Entertainment)

Matthew McConaughey in Bernie (Image © Millennium Entertainment)

However, the last couple of years have included movies in which I can’t really make those kinds of jokes anymore. I don’t think it’s that McConaughey suddenly became an actor. I think it would get us closer to the truth to understand that for various reasons, in order to continue having a career that didn’t involve being a constant laughingstock; he actually had to start trying once in a while. There’s a good ol’ Texas boy element to his character in Bernie, based on Danny Buck Davidson, the real-life DA who handled the Tiede murder scandal, but it’s not the generalized good ol’ Texas boy he’s played in other films. To put it another way, his portrayal of Davidson is not simply an older version of the guy he played in Dazed and Confused. McConaughey plays Davidson as a man of commitment. He is deeply committed to the law, and he is deeply committed to advancing his own career at all costs. Watching McConaughey as Davidson deal with anything that comes up over the course of Bernie that interferes with either or both of those things is delightful. It consists of slight changes to a demeanor that strives to remain in complete control of his jurisdiction and destiny at all times. When Davidson fails to do this, we are treated to the kind of subtle comedic performance some people don’t want to admit McConaughey capable of. I was one of those people for ages, but given the sudden increase in the quality of his work in recent times, it seems silly to keep dismissing him.

However, it’s Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine who take up the bulk of Bernie’s story. Their relationship is obviously one of the driving points of the film. In a similar vein to how he went about adapting Fast Food Nation, Linklater tried to stick to the source material as closely as possible as often as possible. Doing that here is an easier task than it had to have been with Fast Food Nation, and I would suggest that Linklater’s creativity as a filmmaker is what led led him to casting Black and MacLaine as Tiede and Marjorie Nugent respectively. As a bitter, selfish, possessive loner, actively despised by most of the citizens of the small town she lives in (rules over, some might think), it does make sense to cast MacLaine. At least a portion of her career has been devoted to playing characters that have had just about enough of everyone’s bullshit. If the townspeople of Carthage, Texas actually featured in the film are to be believed, MacLaine as Nugent is the most intensely unpleasant character the iconic actress/author/Rat Pack cohort/New Age somethingortheother has ever played in her long, consistently magnificent career. Her character inTerms of Endearment might have been difficult, but at least we generally liked her most of the time. When Bernie Tiede finally shoots her several times in the back with a rifle, it’s hard to be particularly upset. Whether or not we would feel the same way about the actual Tiede and Nugent isn’t really important. What is important is the way MacLaine becomes absolutely vile with only a few scenes to accomplish that. At 79, she remains every bit the actress she hinted at being with the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film The Trouble with Harry. How much we dislike her as Nugent doesn’t make Jack Black as Tiede a complete innocent. However, MacLaine knows that we aren’t supposed to feel sympathy for Nugent, a woman who is lonely because of the choices she has made in life, and she has a lot of fun with that. An actress who can have engaging chemistry with just about anyone, her scenes with Black as Tiede might make us cringe (boy, do they), but they’re also extremely enjoyable throughout. Black is another actor known for chemistry, but he doesn’t have quite the reputation for it that MacLaine has. Fair enough, as one has had a good deal more time to prove it than the other, but give Jack Black time. Movies like Bernie do a phenomenal job of revealing just how good an actor he really is.

This is the second collaboration between Jack Black and Richard Linklater. Black has done good work with other people in other films, but there’s something interesting about his two films with Richard Linklater. School of Rock cemented what a powerful force of comic nature he could be, especially when everything else in the movie could keep up with him. Black as Bernie Tiede is funny in its own way, but it has nothing in common with the kind of funny he gave us in School of Rock. There are dark, sad thoughts in Bernie Tiede’s mind, at least in terms of how Black chooses to play him. There are a number of terrible stories that have made him the person we meet at the start of the movie. There is something so very sweet and so remarkably unfortunate about Jack Black’s Bernie Tiede. Something tells me that Linklater saw Black’s ability to handle all of that as an actor right from the beginning. What Black does here, and it’s something that fuels the argument that he is considerably better at his craft than some would have you believe, is create a Bernie Tiede that no one else could ever duplicate. Other actors could certainly play this semi-tragic figure, but none of them would be Jack Black. He has deserved to be taken seriously for a long time, and Bernie is one of the most stunning examples of why that is to date. What Bernie and Jack Black both succeed at is in making us see that Bernie Tiede is a lot more than a guy who murdered an 81-year-old widow (whether or not Tiede’s claims that his relationship with Nugent created unbearable emotional distress are true). Black assists in this achievement by creating the most complex comedic performance of his career. The movie as a whole does this in several ways. For me, the two biggest ways include the scenes between Black and MacLaine, and in the way the movie sometimes switches into documentary mode.

If truth really is stranger than fiction, then Linklater’s decision to include documentary-style interviews with the locals of Carthage is one of the slyest ways the man has ever fucked with our heads. Considering this is the same guy who has given us movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, it’s impressive that Linklater hasn’t run out of tricks. A lot of Bernie is Texas gothic of the highest, finest order. Carthage is a small town in Texas, but to watch the citizenry of the town discuss Bernie, Marge, their relationship, and then the murder, we learn that Carthage, like many small towns, is a small planet that has chosen to largely govern itself. And because this is Texas we’re talking about, the world of Carthage doesn’t even occupy the same solar system as one of the planets in a completely different part of Texas. As one of the Carthage citizens explains at the onset of the film, Texas as a state is best understood by breaking it down into several slightly smaller parts, each believing itself to be a state unto itself. In a lot of ways, that’s true. Carthage might be a small town within one of those mini-states, but it’s clear from listening to its people talk that it is every bit as large in scale, and multifaceted in its array of characters, as any much larger city might be. The gossip the people of Carthage discuss is fascinating, even though we only have our own experiences with the trials and tribulations of a universe-within-a-universe as each of us defines such a thing to make it relatable. Each point of interest discussed by Carthage locals, interesting personalities consisting of a cunning mix of actors and actual people from the actual town, reveals a lot about those personalities. It also reveals a lot about the type of town Carthage is, and it finally reveals the brilliance of the way Bernie reminds us that stories like the murder of Marge Nugent often come to define these small towns to the rest of the world. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on who you ask. A lot of people in Carthage, recognizing the fact that life must go on, are pretty indifferent to how the rest of the world views their little hamlet. Nonetheless, they seem to be happy to talk about a murder trial that occurred nearly twenty years ago.

If the movie is anything to be believed, and according to a great many people familiar with the story, it is (DA Danny Buck Davidson is not one of those people), not everyone in the town was dismayed or even surprised, to learn that Tiede had killed Nugent, hid her body in the garage freezer, and spent the next several months lying to anyone who wanted to know where she was. All the while, he continued spending large chunks of her money on a variety of humanitarian causes in and around the town. As far as many of those who are “interviewed” (since again, some of them are not actually from the town) in Bernie are concerned, Nugent was a horrible person who abused a kind, patient heart like Tiede’s. Until even a man regarded by many as the nicest and most compassionate in Carthage simply couldn’t take it anymore. For many, it’s not even a matter of guilt or innocence. Going to by the testimonies of actual townspeople, not to mention individuals like Joe Rhodes (Nugent’s nephew), Marjorie Nugent was apparently awful to just about everyone she ever knew. Many of them seemingly continue to harbor deep grudges. Her relationship with Bernie, which is of course one of the driving points of the movie, is widely speculated on by everyone in the film who talks about it. Some think there was much more than just a friendship between them. Some think it was perfectly innocent, if not a little shocking and weird. Surprising at least, that anyone would even become Marge’s friend, although many explain that by simply saying that was the kind of person Bernie was. Others are not so sure if Bernie’s intentions really were so pure.

There’s a lot of differing opinions on Tiede’s sincerity, the nature of his relationship with Nugent, why Bernie did what he did, why he hid the evidence. The one thing everyone can seemingly agree upon is the fact that Marjorie Nugent wasn’t a very nice person. And although people express that sentiment in different ways, no one in Bernie, real or fictional, seems to be particularly broken up about her death. That’s not to say we’re manipulated into believing that if Nugent really was that terrible towards Bernie, that possessive of his life, that he was justified in killing her. Even though the movie certainly seems to lean in that direction, we’re still largely left to make up our own minds. It’s just interesting to watch the way Linklater lets the people define their town by way of their personalities, and what they choose to gossip about (which includes Tiede’s sexuality), and not just a murder that swept the town by storm in the mid-1990’s. It’s not some kind of deliberate, snide commentary on small town America. It’s something that develops naturally, as we’re enjoying the acting and flawlessly-executed black comedy. It’s depth for a movie that on the surface, appears to be nothing more elaborate than a story of small town murder.

It’s also another indicator of Linklater’s talent. At 53, Richard Linklater is one of the most consistently impressive voices in all of film. His films have hit an extraordinarily varied range of personal and technical notes and achievements, and to watch four or five of his best movies in a single weekend is to watch a master who hasn’t quite been acknowledged as such. Not yet, although a lot of praise has been thrown his way over the years. Much of that praise over the past couple has begun to make a serious attempt to look at what Linklater has done so far, and to admire how far he has come artistically and personally since the indie film art house days of Slacker.

Bernie isn’t necessarily the culmination of Linklater’s personal interests, his skill as a writer and director, his social and political opinions, or anything else that influences the projects he chooses. It’s not even his most recent film (that would be the absolutely beautiful Before Midnight). WhatBernie provides us with, in terms of what it means to Linklater’s career, is a clear representation of the passion he continues to have for the medium he has chosen to work in. That’s not say he has remained static. You only need to take a look at the films he has worked on in the past ten years alone to know that’s not the case. He has added things to that passion, he has expanded his interests, and he seems to be genuinely excited by any opportunity he can find to challenge what he knows as a writer, a maker of films, and even as a human being. That’s great for him, sure, but from a selfish point of view, that’s also really cool for us. It means that as long as he wants to continue making movies, and there is reason to believe that he’s going to do that for as long as he is able to, we are going to more often than not treated to something special. We will get to see something that is not only fantastic on its own, but reminds us that no matter what anyone tells you, the potential for creative perspective in cinema has not been exhausted. Not by a long shot. There are filmmakers similar in terms of ambition and enthusiasm to Linklater out there right now. Many of them have been inspired by his movies. If these people are given the opportunity to make movies of their own, and many already have, then we will see once and for all the full scope profound influence Linklater has had. It has only been over the course of the past few years that people have begun to truly appreciate what he has done as a filmmaker. Linklater seems largely disinterested in establishing a firm place in film history, and that’s one of the things I love about him. As far as his career is concerned, most of his interest seems to be focused on whatever his next project might be. He’s still by and large having a really good time, and there’s something quite inspiring about that.

The career and work of Richard Linklater does not need to change the world, in the end. All it needs to do is function in such a way that it’s given further opportunities to be heard. The tour of people, places and ideas that began over twenty years ago with Slacker’s depiction of Austin, Texas continues, and thank the gods we can’t say for sure where it’s going to take us next.

Linklater’s cameo appearance in his movie Slacker. (Image © Millennium Entertainment)

Linklater’s cameo appearance in his movie Slacker. (Image © Millennium Entertainment)