I am, it must be said, really quite excitedly looking forward to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013), given how much I loved its predecessor Before Sunset (2004). So the appearance of this film of his made some years ago and only now getting a belated release in the UK — a film the existence of which I was hitherto entirely unaware of — seemed to hold out the prospect of some minor distraction in the wait. I was therefore slightly taken aback by just how good Bernie has turned out to be.
The real life event that the film is drawing upon is the murder of an elderly woman (played by Shirley MacLaine) by the eponymous Mr Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director in the town of Carthage, Texas, and his subsequent trial by the county’s District Attorney (played by Matthew McConaughey). However, the bulk of the film presents a character study of Bernie from his arrival in the community, with talking head interviews with locals (variously played by both real natives of the town, and actors). It all unfolds at a steady pace, with a bright clean palate of colours framing but not sentimentalising these folksy conversations that punctuate the story.
Perhaps the reason for the relative critical silence on this film is just how unassuming it is, being a small town story which takes every care to minimise the dramatic emphasis on the crime at the centre of its plot (no mention is even made of it for much of the film’s running length), and gently avoids any of the more salacious insinuations. Certainly this could easily have been a shrill and judgmental true life murder film, but instead it offers a portrait of a small closely-knit community, and is made very clearly with genuine affection for the area and all the people involved. I know nothing about Texas, for example, but one of the most entertaining sequences is a short introduction to the state’s geography that comes near the start (with a great comedic pause after the Panhandle is mentioned). And though there are moments of comedy such as this one, they are always gentle, and the film itself is probably best thought of as a comedy only in the broadest sense: it’s a film about the qualities that bring people together, rather than those that divide them.
Of course, given the ultimate outcome, this may seem more than a little perverse, but even MacLaine’s character, the bitter widow who befriends Bernie, isn’t portrayed as a complete monster, and the film mostly focuses on her increasing effect on Bernie’s disposition through brief glimpses of his exasperated face. All the performances are uniformly excellent, with Black toning down his usual broad comic tics. Instead it’s McConaughey’s character as the prosecuting DA who gets some of the most outrightly humorous treatment, though wisely he never plays the character as a fool.
Too many films set in this part of the world want to lay bare the infected heart of the American dream (or some such notion), often while laying in a few kicks at ‘red necks’ and ‘trailer trash’. Far too few really celebrate what’s positive and welcoming about community spirit, at least within that community (there are, it must be said, some sly digs at relationships between fellow small communities). It’s especially rare, moreover, for filmmakers to include religious worship as a healthy part of that world without some judgement (not that this is a film about religion, just that it’s an element). In fact, being non-judgemental about human behaviour is the film’s real achievement, and it does so in a deceptively simple but quite satisfying way.
Director Richard Linklater; Writers Skip Hollandsworth and Linklater (based on Hollandsworth’s article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”); Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 27 April 2013.