The Bright Side of Death
“It was fucking unbelievable”: that’s the judgement of one resident of Carthage, Texas, recalling the moment he heard that local Mortician and community mascot, Bernie Tiede, had been arrested for the murder of 81 year old Margaret Nugent. Eighty percent of the testimonials cut together to narrate Linklater’s bio-com are from the mouths of Carthage’s colourful residents, contemporaries of the real Tiede, and they all agree: he was needy but selfless, naïve but sweet, guilty but innocent. His victim, by contrast, was hateful, cruel and heartless. If Tiede did it at all, and despite his confession there’s at least one local who still won’t accept it, everyone agrees the blame lies with the corpse in the garage freezer.
Fucking unbelievable is a fair judgement on Linklater’s morally dubious appropriation of this real world murder for comic purposes. All biography fictionalises life, you can’t put a camera in someone’s head or bear witness to each moment; any attempt at making sense of events and the actors that participated in them is an exercise in chasing shadows. Nevertheless, a murder confers a responsibility upon any filmic treatment, mindful that movies are such potent mythmakers that they often authoritatively supplant the historic facts in the audience’s mind. Linklater has used witnesses to the truth to tell a lie. Perhaps he rationalised it reasoning, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Tiede, endearing in Jack Black’s hands, with his comic waddle and practiced solemnity, has fewer rough edges than his real world counterpart. His characterisation is modelled on a neat opening metaphor – a scene in which Tiede schools a class of trainee morticians in preparing a corpse for family viewing. He places great importance on presentation, judging the psychological proclivities of grieving relatives. Black’s Tiede is no less precise in judging his own appearance; it’s carefully constructed to put people at their ease. It’s a neat idea, but that’s the closest Linklater comes to judging his subject.
The townspeople, with the odd fictionalised interloper standing in for those who have an active part in the story, paint a flawed but forgiving portrait of a man who’s still clearly well liked by those that knew him. The less palatable side is represented by Matthew McConaughney’s suspicious sheriff, though he, it’s underlined, represents a legal interest removed from first hand experience of the accused.
We might have relied on Linklater’s camera as a more challenging witness; the filmmaker can take us to those moments that exist between testimony and conjecture to show the film’s truth – the comments in the margin. Instead, Linklater seems content to take Bernie’s naivety on trust. Black’s Bernie is a ventriloquist’s dummy; his old friends are operating him.
Indeed, conscious that some of the background to the murder may be at odds with the quirky, homespun tone, evoked by Carthage’s old timers, Linklater’s coy with the details. Salient information, for example the suggestion that Tiede used Nugent’s money to keep a succession of gay lovers, or that he siphoned off large amounts of the victim’s fortune in the months leading up to the killing, are withheld from the audience. Tittle-tattle maybe, but this pretends to be a movie about small town gossip, so let’s have the lot.
Bernie, shorn of any sinister motive for the crime, is instead re-imagined as a victim; a lonely, possibly homosexual man, that gravitated toward a rich widow initially out of altruism and the need to be needed, only to find himself enslaved by his new employer’s possessive nature and addicted to the lifestyle she provided.
The film is sympathetic to a fault, yet only by fixing the sequence of events to remove any ugly complications. Even at the pivotal moment, in which Bernie, harangued to breaking point, picks up a rifle and shoots Nugent four times in the back, Linklater asks his audience to see it as a moment of release, rather than a violent crime. A broken Bernie breaks down and cries, “What have I done?” Linklater might have asked himself the same question when reviewing the rushes.
Perhaps a glimpse of Jack Black talking to the real Bernie Tiede in prison at the close tells the film’s story better than it does. Black seems to have been charmed by Tiede, at least enough to have given him the benefit of the doubt. Linklater takes his cues accordingly. It’s a film that might have been made by Tiede’s appeal lawyer. A fascinating story to be sure, told with a good eye for the absurd, but is it a laughing matter? While it lasts, yes. Later…?
The 55th London Film Festival runs from October 12th-27th. Go to http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff for venue and ticket information. Don’t forget to turn off that fucking phone.