Castle Rock Entertainment
1 hour, 44 minutes
“Hatfields & McCoys”
4 hours, 50 minutes (TV miniseries)
As a movie critic, I feel I’m a bit of a purist. I like stories shot on film better than digital, I don’t like 3D, and I certainly would rather watch a movie in the theater than on my couch at home, no matter how big the TV is. And as such, it pains me to admit a sad fact that many people already know: television is just getting better and better. In the last few years, the best stuff on TV has been significantly better than the best stuff at the movies, a disturbing omen for the future of big-screen cinema. Television used to be mostly filler, dumb jokes and melodrama centered around a few likeable characters. But now, with HBO, AMC, and a dozen other cable channels offering high-budget, well-written programming, it appears that TV is not just for the couch potato anymore.
This week, considering that the limited options on the big-screen included an animated Adam Sandler monster-comedy and an anti-teachers’ union screed, I decided to check out a couple of films at home. One, “Bernie,” was actually a big-screen release, but got such limited play that video is how most people will experience it. The other, “Hatfields & McCoys,” was the first scripted drama to come out of The History Channel which looks to be following the lead of AMC and Discovery. Both films are excellent and worth checking out. I only wish I could have seen them in a movie theater.
“Bernie” stars Jack Black as the titular Bernie Tiede, giving what many are saying is the actor’s first “real” performance. Living and working as a mortician in the small East Texas town of Carthage, Bernie is universally beloved. He’s kind, generous, and fun, having a remarkable ability to put people at ease. It’s ironic that Bernie, who is anything but your typical rural East Texan — soft-spoken, cultured, theatrical, and gay — is so widely respected by the people of Carthage, and it hits at the heart of what makes this story so bizarre.
In the early 1990’s, Bernie took up with an elderly, and very wealthy, widow named Marjorie Nugent. Nugent, it seems was almost universally hated in the town, but Bernie felt sorry for her and eventually became her closest companion. That companionship eventually led Nugent to change her will, leaving her entire estate to Bernie. Unfortunately for everyone involved, especially Ms. Nugent, a leopard can’t change its spots. Bernie was never going to be able to give over his entire life for Marjorie, and Marjorie was never going to be able to completely get over being bitter and mean. And so, one day in a bizarre, almost out of body experience, Bernie picked up a .22 rifle, shot Marjorie four times in the back, and then stuffed her body in a chest freezer in the garage.
What’s brilliant about director Richard Linklater’s film is the tone he is able to maintain. Somehow, “Bernie” remains darkly comic, without ever turning mean. Everyone is sympathetic, even Nugent, played by Shirley Maclaine. Jack Black is able to embody his character with that inherent Jack Black likability, without going over the top. The movie also keeps from being judgemental somehow. Was Bernie a lovable do-gooder who just snapped, as the people of Carthage believe, or a calculating gold-digger, as the prosecuting attorney at his trial contends?
Probably a little bit of both, if truth be told, though more of the former than the latter. Bernie is told in a kind of half-narrative, half-documentary style, with real Carthage citizens stepping in to play themselves in interviews, and in the drama. This risky maneuver works perfectly in my opinion, giving the movie a perfect authenticity.
“Bernie’s” authenticity is something I know a lot about, actually, which was one reason I was excited to see the movie. In a bizarre six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of way, the events in Carthage directly impacted my life. My wife, not yet a teacher, was just finishing her master’s degree about the time Bernie was interring Ms. Nugent under the frozen peas. We lived in Nacogdoches, a couple of towns over from Carthage, and a teaching position came up suddenly in a little hamlet directly between our two towns. Apparently the yearbook advisor, a close friend of Bernie’s, had suffered a nervous breakdown upon the discovery of Ms. Nugent’s body, and left the job suddenly. The position needed filling as soon as possible, and my wife got the job, the beginning of an auspicious career that eventually led us here.
Luckily for me, unlike “Bernie,” my connection to the famous feuding families the Hatfields and the McCoys is none at all. But like “Bernie,” the History Channel adaptation of the story is incredibly compelling. Starring Kevin Costner as Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randolph McCoy, the five-hour mini-series chronicles a decades-long civil war that existed between two prominent Appalachian families immediately after the American Civil War. The story, which I, as most people, knew little about, beyond the simple reference, is really fascinating, involving dozens of characters, outlaws, soldiers, posses and even the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s hard to say how much of this film is loose interpretation and how much is hard fact, but it’s safe to say it’s probably a little of both. Regardless, the filmmakers do an excellent job of dramatizing the slow build-up from a few slights and a misplaced pig, to a bloody struggle that claimed over a dozen lives. I was especially impressed with Paxton, who plays McCoy as a rigidly moral man, but who suffered what could only be described as PTSD as a result of his service in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. It’s riveting watching this quiet man slowly unravel as the feud, which for him was a simple quest for justice, burns completely out of control, eventually destroying everything he had. The acting, writing, and production design are top-notch and, for me, have completely obliterated my previous vision of the feuding clan, which was the two hillbillies on “Bugs Bunny” playing the fiddle and yanking on each other’s beards.
The only real issue in “Hatfields” is one that will probably save big-screen movies, at least for a while. Commercials. No, I didn’t watch commercials — I rented the DVD — but even so, there are story breaks built in that are jarring and make the drama feel more manufactured than natural.
“Bernie,” designed for the big-screen, doesn’t suffer from this, and, as a result, is the slightly better film. But both are excellent and well worth the time. That’s eight hours of time, by the way, so you better make some extra popcorn.
Grades: “Hatfields & McCoys” — A-; “Bernie” — A.
“Bernie” is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and language. “Hatfields & McCoys” is not rated, being a TV series, but you could figure it’d be at least a PG-13, maybe an R, for pretty rough violence, language, and sensuality.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.