Bernie (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
9Jun/120

Bernie (2012)

The part of Christianity that always seemed appealing to me was the idea that all sins could be forgiven.  Unfortunately, this gave way to another philosophy of hate the sin, love the sinner.  It's a subtle transition, one that allows people of all stripes to reach the ultimate path of cleanliness or another that allows more vocal attacks on someone's lifestyle.  The first still allows a bit of wiggle room in the judgement department, but in the end it's always been nice to know someone thinks we're all worth saving.

In another way, it's one of the most terrifying aspects of any religion that allows some kind of moral absolutes.  If you're going to say we're all forgiven in the long run, of what use is forgiveness in the physical sense?  We're all flesh and bone folks prone to misdeeds so if we're all capable of being forgiven, does it really matter what we do here?  Taken in it's absolute literal sense, not in the slightest.  The end result is the same so why change how the game is played.

All of this is why Richard Linklater, making the best film I've seen in 2012, and Jack Black, in the best performance of 2012, make such a perfect dark comedy.  Bernie is impossible to hate, just as difficult to avoid gossiping about, and capable of something so heinous the virtue of his niceness and the mercy of Christian forgiveness make it possible for him to get away with anything.

Even...murder?  Well, yes, they're not so shy about announcing that in either the advertisements or the introduction of Bernie, so there's no sense in being coy about it here.

Jack Black has struck dark empathetic gold with Linklater in this hilarious film.  In the opening moments we see Bernie (Jack Black) preparing a corpse for presentation before a class, completely unfazed by death and unaware of his natural talent at making the best of everything.  He's popular in his community, a huge hit with the elderly widows, and inspires discussion with the local Carthage, Texas townsfolk about his motivations and endless chatter about if there is any other "stimulation" he gets from helping those so old.

These moments are told in wonderful asides told in a documentary style with the participants commenting on all the events of the film after the fact.  I love movies that aren't afraid to take supposed small town folk at face value, and they're incredibly witty people who are aware of how they look to the rest of the world while still maintaining a respectable set of Christian values in fun ways.  One of the small delights of the film involved a frequent cut to two women, one older with a few trips around the block and the other clearly in awe of her, and the way the young'n is so delighted with the way her elder can cuss.  Their smiles show they're able to get away with secrets in each other's company they can rarely do elsewhere.

That respect carries over to all aspects of the film, especially the way it treats Bernie and Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  She lost her husband, the only person in the world willing to tolerate her, and Bernie filled the void by both sharing that tolerance and willing to be her friend.  MacLaine isn't flashy about her hate for the town, it's in the way she clutches her purse or offers not a terse smile but sudden angry stop to her face when the collection plate is passed around.  Then there's Bernie, always by her side, until the day he simply cannot take it anymore and shoots her in the back.

This is the moment the simple Christian value of forgiveness completely breaks down and the film begins asking detailed questions about what we're supposed to accept in the name of religion.  Is there any crime so heinous it cannot be forgiven?  Well, it depends on the Christian, and it depends on who the crime is against.

Bernie makes the point that, at the center of Christianity, is an unholy sense of vanity.  The people of Carthage are able to forgive because that makes them better Christians in each other's eyes, and Bernie is their perfect substitute savior because he treats them so nicely.  What does it matter if some mean old lady is shot in the back if her wealth can be redistributed back to the community for a playhouse or two?  Bernie only committed a rash murder, Marjorie had the audacity to be mean to Christians.

The way the movie builds to this point is so perfect when you see that vanity is tied up with the Bernie idolatry.  The community sings about Jesus but they praise Bernie in all aspects of his life, including his blatant offense at one of the Commandments.  It's only when District Attorney Danny Buck (a very funny Matthew McConaughey) steps in try and provide a rational balance do the morality scales become balanced but even more cloudy.  Yeah, Bernie did a heinous thing, but so much good was redistributed to the community, but it was still from nearly stolen funds, but there needs to be punishment for murder, but is there a "too strict" punishment for murder when we're all going to end the same way?  On and on the questions go, blurring the line between Conservative, Liberal, secular, religious, and ultimately asks - how do you feel about this?

I haven't seen a movie this year that respects the audience intelligence as much as Bernie.  Linklater has long been one of my favorite directors and he takes great joy in presenting such a wonderfully convoluted moral conundrum.  But then there's Jack Black, dialing back ever so perfectly and presenting a man so nice and simple it's difficult to believe, even knowing what's coming, that he could be capable of such a thing.  Still he's tormented and genuine, utilizing those singing skills we've come to expect but playing them in such a way he's unaware of having a voice, and admiring the beauty of life in all it's entirety, even when he brings about death.

Bernie (2012)
Directed by Richard Linklater.
Screenplay by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth.
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey.

Posted by Andrew

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