Hot Docs

Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille Review: A stranger than fiction mystery

Hot Docs 2022

/
7 mins read

Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille

(Canada, 78 min.)
Dir. Jackie Torrens
Program: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)

 

Bernie Langille’s grandfather (and namesake) died 15 years before he was born, but his death has been a festering wound for the family that refuses to heal.  Picking at the scab with the curiosity of an amateur sleuth, Langille hopes to finally expose the raw and painful truth that has evaded the family for decades. In Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille, director Jackie Torrens follows Langille as he tries to unravel a string of clues that are tightly woven into a complex knot of fact and fiction.

Understanding the way memory can often keep a person emotionally frozen in time, Torrens redoubles the mystery by using miniature sets to depict key moments in the life of Langille family.  The detailed sets provide a unique window into the past while allowing one to digest some of the more disturbing details of Bernie Sr.’s life.

Although extraordinary as a narrative and visual device, the miniatures occasionally threaten to overshadow the emotion of the scenes they are depicting. One is always aware of the sense of artifice but Torrens’ sincerity ensures that they never feel like a stylistic gimmick. The sets also help Torrens to present some of the more eccentric aspects of the central mystery in a grounded fashion.

Untangling the events that led to Bernie Sr.’s death fifty years ago is made even more challenging due to the fact that there are various theories surrounding his killer.  Langille’s own family has long believed that the murder was part of an intricate coverup by the Canadian military.  While the younger Langille feels there is truth to this, the family has spent decades unsuccessfully trying to prove it.  The story of Bernie Sr.’s demise is so bizarre that pinpointing the defining piece of evidence is not so simple. Even Langille himself acknowledges that “I wouldn’t believe me either” when recounting the tale.

According to the version he was told as a child, his grandfather, a corporal in the electrical and mechanical engineering division of the Canadian Armed Forces in New Brunswick, came to bed on the night of February 8, 1968, with his head battered and bleeding.  His wife Anne woke up to find him in that condition.

Considering that blood was found at the bottom of the basement stairs, it was initially assumed that he had fallen and hit his head.  However, a series of increasingly strange incidents that occurred when Bernie Sr. was rushed to the military hospital challenged this assumption.  During the hours he was waiting for a flight to a Nova Scotia hospital, one of the military doctors on staff was witnessed beating up Langille’s half-conscious grandfather while allegedly issuing death threats. By the time Bernie Sr. finally made it to Nova Scotia, the ambulance that was supposedly rushing him to the hospital mysteriously stopped in the middle of train tracks and was hit by an oncoming locomotive.

Langille’s grandfather eventually died on February 12, 1968. Deciphering which incident caused his death is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube with several important coloured squares missing.  Over the course of Torrens’ film, Langille follows every possible breadcrumb even when they lead to dead ends. Using Bernie Sr.’s SIN number, which is on his tombstone, as a starting point, his younger namesake consults experts in the medical field, family members, neighbours, and friends to piece together how the events are linked.

While the stranger than fiction premise in Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille whets one’s appetite for a juicy mystery, the actual investigation is not as satisfying as one would anticipate.  Part of this stems from the fact that the mythology of Bernie Sr.’s death is so outlandish that no logical explanation could ever match the grandiose nature of the setup. Even Langille seems unsure of what he hopes to achieve when he initially sets out on his quest.  He talks about writing a new positive chapter in his family’s tragic book, but to do this means confronting the fact that Bernie Sr. might not be the heroic individual that he imagined.

In observing Langille’s journey, it slowly becomes clear that Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille is not so much about solving a murder as it is about one man’s attempt to mend his family.  Two generations later and the aftershocks of Bernie Sr.’s death are still being felt. Torrens’ documentary is most intriguing when her camera is quietly observing the reverberations from the perspective of Langille’s uncles Doug and Paul.  Forced yet again to relive the numerous traumas the past, they struggle to wade through the swamp of memories that their nephew’s investigation stirs up.

Unfortunately, there simply is not enough room in the film to fully explore the various themes (e.g., PTSD, medical malpractice, etc.) that are touched upon with any real depth.  With the film’s various strands competing with Langille’s investigations, cracking the central mystery of Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille is not quite as gripping as one would hope.

Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened to Bernie Langille premieres at Hot Docs on April 30.

 

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association. He can be reached at @smallmind.

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