This week I saw two movies that were quite different in structure and tone, but they shared one important theme — small-town life. The first movie is 2004′s Wilby Wonderful, produced by our friendly Canadian brethren; the second was 2011′s Bernie. Wilby Wonderful was pretty bad. Bernie was pretty good. I think a key to their ultimate fates lies in their treatment of the small town setting, but more about that later. Beware spoilers if you care about that crap.
Let me start with Wilby Wonderful, because I love me some complaining. It’s not awful, but it is aggressively mediocre, and sometimes that’s worse. At least movies that are spectacular failures tend to be distinctly, uniquely, memorably awful, and oftentimes have the courage of their convictions — their awful, awful convictions — to stand as a testament that someone, somewhere, was trying. But Wilby is just kind of boring and safe. It’s one of those movies about a disparate cast of characters whose lives and fates converge over the course of one day. I’ve got nothing against this format per se, but I can’t really think of a lot of movies other than Magnolia where I actually liked the result.
Wilby is the movie’s titular town. It’s a small island community in Nova Scotia that’s a-rumble with whispers of a scandal whose participants’ names are soon to be published. The nature of the scandal is broadly hinted at but never explicitly named during the course of the movie, but basically it sounds like gay men around the community had been using a local spot as a place to hook up, and Wilby is one such small town where this is a damn big deal. One of the men in question is one of the film’s main players, and the threat of his outing and the ostracizing he already receives from townies who perceive him as different has him fixing to kill himself at the movie’s outset. Other main players include a well-meaning handyman who’s taken an interest in the suicidal man, a type-A real estate agent who ain’t from around these parts, her world-weary cop husband, the down-on-her-luck single mother and cafe owner the cop is having an affair with, the cafe owner’s teenage daughter, and the corrupt, good ole boy mayor.
There isn’t much else to these characters besides the broad strokes I’ve described above. I guess if you were feeling charitable you could say this is intentional on the part of the movie and it’s supposed to mimic a common reality of small-town life: the feeling that your fate is fixed and immutable. I’m not that charitable, though. This reality isn’t an excuse for flat characters, especially when their flatness is paired with clunky dialogue, odd pacing, a manipulative soundtrack, and a completely uninspired setting. For all the movie’s supposed quirkiness (I believe Netflix recommended it to me under its indie genre, and the word “quirky” appeared in the synopsis), everything about the movie is rote and predictable. Within a few minutes of each character’s introduction, it’s fairly obvious how their story is going to play out:
- The teenager isn’t going to lose her virginity to her obviously terrible boyfriend; she’s going to come to her senses at the last minute
- The single mother cafe owner and the cop are going to end their obviously dead-end fling, and the cop and the real estate agent are going to look closer at themselves and their marriage
- The single mother is going to find a new lease on her business and her relationship with her daughter
- The real estate agent is going to have a spectacular breakdown, crumpling her exaggeratedly polished exterior
- The gay man isn’t going to succeed in killing himself, and is in fact going to experience a resurgence of hope in the form of a potential romantic interest
How the movie reaches these conclusions isn’t particularly interesting, except perhaps for the tonal inconsistencies it hits as it does so. Take the suicidal gay man. His suicide attempts become sources of dopey humor throughout the film, because people keep awkwardly walking in on him at just the wrong moment, so that he quickly has to climb down from the bridge he’s going to jump off of (getting his foot entangled, lol), pretend he was merely testing the shower curtain rod (it falls down, lol), and take his head out of the oven (now the house, which is for sale and needs to be shown soon, reeks of gas — LOLOLOLOLOL). (By the way, for a movie in which failed suicide attempts actually succeed at being darkly hilarious, see Delicatessen.) In Wilby the only entertainment from these scenes derives from asking yourself, is this supposed to be funny? Sad? A perfect bittersweet medley of the two? Because none of that really bleeds through.
Wilby is supposed to be a wonderful place. (It’s right there in the title, which is itself the jumbled version of the name of the town’s annual festival.) People say so in the movie. And a lot of them also think it’s a prison, a damaging place. And they also say so. In fact, that’s the problem: people in this movie talk a lot about what they’re feeling, why they’re sad, what they think is wrong with the town, with their relationships, with life in general. “What do you see when you look at me?” the brooding cop broodily asks his wife at one point. “Why don’t you paint anymore?” is one of the broodingly loaded questions he poses to her in the beginning of the movie. In another scene, he broodingly describes the disintegration of his relationship with his wife — mirror that with the town — to his coworker as they’re broodingly investigating the site of the town scandal.
This is what the movie does over and over again. It trades in actual feeling and subtlety for explicit telling, so that the result of all the tribulations, as life-affirming as it’s supposed to be, falls flat because you knew it was coming all along. It was predestined and then loudly telegraphed throughout the whole movie as each character wore their soul-searching on their sleeve. And so in that respect, the people feel inauthentic, and so too does the town.
But there’s more to it than that; Wilby, as presented on film, just kind of looks flat, doesn’t really feel lived-in, and that’s a shame in a movie where the setting and the characters’ relationship with it are crucial. I don’t know if it’s just cheap production values — and they looked pretty cheap, let me tell you; TV movie cheap — but the movie would have benefited from establishing a better sense of place. Instead we got to hang out in the generic cafe where the single mom is trying to make it, and the generic hotel cafe that’s putting them out of business; we got the generic motel where the suicidal man now lives, and where the two teens almost have sex; and we spend most of the rest of the time in generic houses and offices, and inside the empty home the real estate agent is trying to sell, perhaps standing in for the movie’s empty, lifeless presence.
It’s a frustrating movie. I have spent most of my life in small towns and smaller cities but can also appreciate them from an outsider’s perspective, too; I am fascinated by the rural/urban divide and any media that examines this and similar themes, as well as the idea of belonging in general. But only if it’s done thoughtfully, and this wasn’t really that. All in all, I give this movie two out of five botched suicide attempts.
Oh, crap, I spent over a thousand words talking about this stupid movie. Impromptu New Year’s resolution: spend less time talking about why I hated a movie and more time talking about the ones I liked.
So that’s Wilby. Bernie was a lot more fun. It has a much more distinct point of view and livelier characters. That may seem like a given considering it’s based on a true story and even features real people from the town where the event in question took place, but the truth of a story doesn’t automatically translate to a compelling movie. There are plenty of crappy biopics out there with people and places that feel half-formed, despite the fact that they really exist. But Bernie avoids that and it’s delightful.
Bernie is the true story of a mortician named Bernie Tiede who befriends and then murders a wealthy widow. It’s also the story of small town, Carthage, TX, that almost unanimously unites behind Bernie after the murder based on the strength of his personality and the good he’s done for Carthage. Indeed, he’s a man with a lot to offer. In the funeral parlor, he does everything from making the departed look their best (he warns a group of mortuary students in the great opening scene that people always apply too much blush to the dead: it never makes them look less dead); to forming a tender rapport with the bereaved; to slyly upselling them on better and more expensive caskets, a skill which thrills his boss. The film walks a fine line between portraying Bernie as something of a huckster and as a man who’s truly convinced that his ministrations in funeral preparations are really a higher calling.
Jack Black plays Bernie in what is by far the best performance I’ve seen him give. What’s great about it is that there are clear hints of the shtick that he’s so well-known for — he’s got the same kind of naivete and optimism of the overgrown kids he normally plays — but here, he plays it straight and it’s to great effect. Why, he even sings and it’s not crazy at all. Meanwhile, Sissi Spacek is good as Marjorie Newman, the acerbic widow Bernie ends up killing, though there isn’t quite as much meat to her character.
The first third or so of the movie features Carthage residents and the mortician he worked with extolling Bernie’s virtues as a worker and citizen. These interviews showcase the charm and eccentricities of Carthage without making a mockery of it. I bitched about how Wilby doesn’t really feel like a real town, while Carthage can’t help but feel real. I think a big part of that comes not just from the real people but the attention to detail in each of the movie’s environments: the crosses that begin to multiply at the funeral home once Bernie begins working there, the mood lighting he adds to make it feel less like a business and more a spiritual place; Marjorie’s home is an imposing behemoth of a shrine to dead game with some nice classy old lady touches thrown in for good measure. Even just getting a sense of who the people of Carthage are — interviewing them in their backyard gardens, on a picnic table by the river drinking their favorite beer — gives a great sense of place and time while utilizing small details. Of course, this wouldn’t work so well if there weren’t a complicated weirdo at the heart of the story to bolster this feeling, but luckily, there is.
Once Bernie meets Marjorie at her husband’s funeral, an initially tenuous connection forged over Bernie’s desire to see to the wellbeing of newly-bereaved widows quickly warms into a strange friendship: they begin lunching together, seeing plays, going on day trips, and eventually even begin taking international trips together. (According to some rumors, Bernie is Marjorie’s lover; according to others, he’s actually gay or celibate or both or all or none of the above). Whatever the nature of the relationship, the film shows a genuine warmth on both parts. Marjorie, who’s estranged from her family (she’s even been sued by two of her grandchildren), writes them out of her will and makes Bernie her sole beneficiary instead. In spite of this apparent sign of trust, though, Marjorie eventually turns colder towards Bernie, becoming jealous and controlling of him and his time. Piece by piece, he’s stripped away of his freedoms, called upon by Marjorie to attend to her every need, until he’s forced to work part-time at the funeral home he loves so much. One day Bernie snaps and shoots Marjorie four times in the back with a gun intended to shoot stray armadillos rooting up the garden. Then things take a turn for the morbid. Or, well, the more morbid, because shooting someone within an armadillo gun is definitely somewhere in morbid bounds.
Marjorie’s body disappears. Bernie tells the outside world she’s had a stroke and is recuperating in a nursing home, then later in her own home, where she declines to see anybody. (She’s famously antisocial, after all, and few miss her.) Meanwhile, be begins spending Marjorie’s money on gifts to the community: church donations, money to whoever needs it, even a backyard play-set for the children of a parishioner. But eventually his tale unravels when Marjorie’s accountant becomes suspicious of her absence and obtains a warrant to search her house, and Marjorie’s body is found hidden under a layer of frozen goods in the garage freezer.
The murder, to which Bernie confesses when caught, rocks the town, but they quickly jump to his defense — so much so, as a matter of fact, that Bernie’s prosecutor (played somewhat slimily but delightfully by Matthew McConaughey, who took me a minute or two to recognize) has the trial moved to a town fifty miles away, convincing the judge it won’t be a fair trial otherwise. Basically, he’s Chief Wiggum in Homer the Vigilante, during Wiggum’s one moment of clarity as police chief:
Wiggum: Oh, sorry folks. Gee, I really hate to spoil this little love-in, but Mr. Malloy broke the law. And when you break the law, you gotta go to jail.
Bernie is so charming that the residents of Carthage are almost as hoodwinked by him as Springfield is by Malloy. It’s sobering to think that the events of this movie are real, that a seemingly sweet and compassionate man could hide on top of his murder for nine months, but the film — and Jack Black — do a great job of convincing you why this is so, and how he managed to touch the residents of Carthage. It’s a surprisingly amiable little movie given its dark subject matter. Perhaps it only seems that way because it gives Bernie too big of a pass (this according to the real life prosecutor, although Marjorie Newman’s nephew apparently saw the film and said that the film’s events were portrayed pretty accurately). Still, it’s a fascinating and funny glimpse into how a town becomes its own exclusive world that exalts and celebrates what it would probably condemn elsewhere. I give it four out of five armadillos.