Talk is her business, and her chief delight
To tell of prodigies and cause affright.
She fills the people's ears with Dido's name,
Who, lost to honor and the sense of shame,
Admits into her throne and nuptial bed
A wand'ring guest, who from his country fled:
Whole days with him she passes in delights,
And wastes in luxury long winter nights,
Forgetful of her fame and royal trust,
Dissolv'd in ease, abandon'd to her lust.

--Virgil, The Aeneid
So...Bernie. I really enjoyed watching Richard Linklater's latest, a comedy about a 1996 murder in Carthage, in east Texas. In 1985 Bernie Tiede moved there, taking up a job as the assistant funeral director and throwing himself into civic life. He was a newcomer, a confirmed bachelor, and I guess what you might call a metrosexual, all of which put him outside the traditional male typology. Despite these idiosyncracies, he was soon well-beloved in Carthage. When he began passing time with the town's wealthiest widow, Marjorie Nugent, people started to talk--but they weren't sniping that Bernie was after her money; they were marveling that he could stand to spend so much time with the old prune. And when it emerged that he had killed her and stuffed her body in a freezer, where he hid it for nine months, the town rallied round: well, okay, maybe he had done that, but he had a lot of good points too.

The story would be incredible if it wasn't real, but it is; the movie is based on Skip Hollandsworth's 1998 account of the crime, "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas," and the script sticks quite closely to Hollandsworth's excellent reporting. We can't really say that the movie is ultimately unconvincing, in other words, because that would mean that the facts are ultimately unconvincing, which would put us outside the empirical tradition to which we claim to subscribe. I guess what we can say, instead, is that Bernie is hard to know. The film, on balance, is sympathetic to him. Nugent is shown to be as hateful as he says, and other than the fact that we see him shoot her and confess to it, there's no evidence in his character of anything approaching malice. If anything, he seems like a pathetic figure, frightened of an old lady and an armadillo.

The events depicted are interspersed with 'interviews' with the townspeople; these scenes were probably my favourite part of the movie. The mix of jokes, brags, platitudes, bitchery, and practical wisdom was about right; the make-up, the accents, the chattiness that marks east Texas as southern, the crassness that keeps it in Texas. That all felt recognizable to me, and the townspeople effectively anchor a story that otherwise could have seemed like an existential non sequitur--which is, actually how Bernie himself seems to have experienced the murder. You just never know about anybody, do you?
 



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