Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Richard Linklater is an American original, a filmmaker with a deep and eclectic body of work, spanning studio movies and independent fare alike, who has religiously used the medium of cinema to pursue inquiries into his varied fields of interest. In an ideal world, there would be more directors like him, who labor less for stature and craft, and more to shine lights into experiential nooks and crannies, and explore their own curiosities about modern life and all its contradictions and incongruities. Linklater’s 15th feature offering, the delightfully off-kilter “Bernie,” is both different from much of his other work, and yet inimitably the same in its priorities and sublime telling. It’s kind of a less overtly comedic Eastern Texas response to “Fargo,” a fantastically absorbing and comedically inflected docu-drama which tells the tale of a beloved Sunday school teacher and a strange and shockingly unexpected murder.
Based on a 1998 “Texas Monthly” article about the bizarre true story of its namesake protagonist and other characters, “Bernie” unfolds in the small town of Carthage, where 39-year-old confirmed bachelor Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) takes a job as the junior mortician at the local funeral home. Sweet-natured, church-going and unerringly polite, choir member Tiede soon becomes friends with virtually everyone. That includes Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a reclusive and ill-tempered 81-year-old millionaire widow who rubs most of the other townsfolk the wrong way. The endurance of Tiede’s patience and kindness seems to wear down her nastiness, however, and Tiede soon becomes Nugent’s gentleman companion, ferrying her to hair appointments and other errands, helping her oversee her financial investments, and accompanying her to the few other public events she deems worthy of her time.
Nugent’s constant put-downs and nagging eventually begins to wear on Tiede, however, and in a flash of anger he murders her. For months, though, Tiede keeps her death a secret, doling out her considerable fortune in a string of charitable acts that keeps questions about her societal withdrawal at bay. Rising from the position of assistant funeral director to a full-time post, Bernie basically becomes a servant of the entire town. Suspicious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), however, senses something is amiss, and, tipped off by Nugent’s financial planner, eventually closes in on Tiede, shocking the town.
“Bernie” works so well because it doesn’t funnel the stranger-than-fiction facts of this case through one subjective point-of-view. In its commingled sympathetic affection and raised-brow disbelief and reservation about both the small town setting and various characters, the movie comes across as shaggy and oddball without ever feeling scornful or mocking. Some of the performances abet this (McConaughey is a bewigged hoot, in one of his better performances in years), but it’s mainly a testament to Linklater’s masterful construction and deft touch with disparate tonalities. Black’s superlative turn, meanwhile, laced with light effeminate touches but also brimming with warmth and sincerity, is a wonderful thing. To the extent that he can disappear into a role, he does so here; it’s his most chameleonic work since “Tropic Thunder,” yet of course far more subtle and affecting.
The movie leans toward dark comedy a bit, but isn’t a “black comedy” in the vein of “Envy,” “Duplex” or “Very Bad Things,” nor does it tip over into absurdia in the manner that a Coen brothers’ treatment of the same material might, for better or worse. “Bernie” feels real, if definitely weird. Part of this owes to a unique framing choice made by Linklater. Co-written by the director and Skip Hollandsworth, who penned the aforementioned article upon which “Bernie” is based, the film interweaves interviews with real-life Carthage residents (and McConaughey’s actual mother as well) into the story, sharing their experiences with Nugent and their thoughts on the case, and mystery surrounding it. If Errol Morris and John Waters collaborated on a narrative feature, well, it might resemble this.
Written by: Brent Simon