This week's theatrical release of Bernie, after a long and winding run through the festival circuit, beginning at the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer, has prompted more than a few appreciations of Richard Linklater's career overall, regardless of how each individual critic ultimately comes down on his new film. Noel Murray and Scott Tobias have written up a primer at the AV Club and, at Slate, Seth Stevenson's attached a sidebar of rankings to his assessment of the oeuvre.
And then there's Kent Jones, writing for Film Comment: "My belief that Richard Linklater remains America's most underestimated filmmaker has been reinforced by the reception thus far to his new film Bernie, treated as either a failed Jack Black comedy or a movie that has not made up its mind about whether it wants to be fiction or documentary, funny or serious. Which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the dominant influence on American film criticism is no longer Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael, but early 20th-century parenting manuals."
"If I hadn't already read Skip Hollandsworth's Texas Monthly article recounting the tragicomic tale of Carthage's assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, I'd swear this film adaptation was based on one of Joe R Lansdale's East Texas gothic," writes Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle, and Nick Pinkerton notes in the Voice that the screenplay "was in part dictated from the stand: In a 1997 murder trial in Carthage, Texas, Bernhardt 'Bernie' Tiede confessed to the shooting of his benefactress, millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent. Tiede, a former mortician 43 years Nugent's junior, had become her constant companion shortly after their meeting at the 1990 funeral of her oilman husband. Tiede testified that Nugent kept him on an increasingly short leash as, through the years, the relationship turned to servitude. Following what Tiede described as a breaking-point, impulse killing — four shots into Nugent's back with a .22 rifle — he hid her body and, already well-established as her public face around Carthage, commenced with uncharacteristic acts of philanthropy, giving away Nugent's money and becoming a sort-of Robin Hood figure in the process."
"[T]he widow in the freezer was, in real life, my Aunt Marge, Mrs Marjorie Nugent, my mother's sister and, depending on whom you ask, the meanest woman in East Texas." Joe Rhodes for the New York Times Magazine: "There are little things in Bernie that aren't exactly true, bits of dialogue, a changed name here and there. But the big things, the weirdest things, the things you'd assume would have to be made up, happened exactly as the movie says they did. The trial lawyers really did wear Stetsons and cowboy boots and really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. Daddy Sam's barbecue and bail bonds, just a few blocks from the courthouse in Carthage (population: 6,700), really does have a sign that says, 'You Kill It, I'll Cook It!' And they really did find my Aunt Marge on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender's chicken potpies, wrapped in a Lands' End sheet. They had to wait two days to do the autopsy. It took her that long to thaw."
"Repetitive but not tiresome, Bernie is shot as a mock documentary — with the action annotated or described by a chorus of gossipy townspeople, many of them played by Bernie's actual neighbors," notes J Hoberman at Artfinfo. "This colorful discourse makes for the movie's richest element." Kent Jones: "Our attention is continually drawn away from Bernie and Mrs Nugent ([Shirley] MacLaine is, in fact, less of a character than a visual figure) and toward the point of view of the man at the lunch counter, the businessman behind his desk, the two women sitting on their porch." Linklater "unfurl[s] a spectrum of fascination with and experience of Texas as such," writes the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "It is, after all, where he's from, and he makes the film a not-unmitigated celebration of the local ways of life."
"The dramatic segments are comparatively bloodless alongside all the idiomatic chatter," finds Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. "Bridging the two modes is Matthew McConaughey as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the only character who's both an interviewee and a narrative player. He nearly destroys everything by appearing to be mugging his way through an entirely different movie, possibly one directed by Christopher Guest." Still: "This must be one of the most faithful true-crime movies ever made, putting the lie to the director's bullet-point sales description of this being an 'east Texas Fargo.' Verisimilitude, in and of itself, isn't necessarily laudable, but as an exercise in seeing how close imaginative reconstruction can be to journalism, Bernie's ambitions are surprisingly as big as Tiede's personality."
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3/5), Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), Manohla Dargis (NYT), Steve Erickson (Artery), Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot), Mary Pols (Time), Nicolas Rapold (L), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 5/5), Scott Tobias (AV Club, B+), Bill Weber (Slant, 1.5/4) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 6/10).
Sean Gillane (Playlist), Elise Nakhnikian (L) and Scott Tobias (AV Club) talk with Linklater, while Salon's Andrew O'Hehir interviews Black and Sam Adams interviews MacLaine at the AV Club. The Austin Chronicle's Marjorie Baumgarten talks with both Linklater and McConaughey.
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