Based on Skip Hollandsworth’s colour-drenched 1998 Texas Monthly article, Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a cheery macabre comedy about beloved small-town East Texas funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who befriended but eventually murdered the despised wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and confounded district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) when the community rallied behind him.
It’s a universally engaging true-crime story with a regional front-porch swing. Linklater, who grew up in East Texas, knows the terrain and confidently pushes that “swing” into uncomfortable areas, giving the film a deliciously wicked moral ambiguity so we’re never sure whom we’re supposed to side with.
Like many of Linklater’s films – Slacker, Waking Life – Bernie is populated with a mix of actors and non-actors (impossible to tell apart) who are “interviewed” in familiar surroundings. They narrate the story as a forensic – not of crime but of character.
Linklater often revels in a meandering vibe but in Bernie maintains a lively forward momentum, employing documentary-like montages (clips, photos, provocative title cards) to reveal Bernie’s unquestionably sincere community-minded life since arriving, like a multi-tasking adult cherub, in Carthage, Tex.
But we get only scant background information and thus join the townsfolk in speculation. Is Bernie gay? Probably. Was he in it for the money? Well, sort of. Bernie was well known for paying kindly attention to widows, but the icy and recently widowed Mrs. Nugent proves a challenge. Loathed by her kin, she gradually warms to the persistent Bernie, eventually making him her travel companion and allowing him to control her finances, which he channels into community projects even after stuffing her dead body into a freezer.
Jack Black, whom Linklater directed in School of Rock, delivers a command performance as Bernie, a role that exploits Black’s comedic talents and physical features but also allows him to reach beyond. Bernie may sing in the choir, direct the town musicals and prance in with flowers or treats at any occasion, but ultimately he’s a lonely guy craving acceptance. In the opening scene, he reverentially instructs mortuary students on how to make a corpse look good. As events unfold, he remains similarly genuine and dedicated. And Black, like the real-life Bernie, never once breaks from character.
MacLaine delivers a sharp, evolving performance as Marjorie, a cranky widow who softens, at first, to Bernie’s community do-gooding but eventually smartens up and tightens her web until he can’t stand it. The murder seems spur-of-the-moment, as does Bernie’s decision to hide the body. Yet he carries on, serving the community and covering his tracks all the while knowing his, uh, bad deed will be discovered.
McConaughey is note perfect as the swaggering DA, who is handed the case on a platter (solid evidence, a confession) but whose confidence is challenged when he becomes a pariah and is forced to move the trial out of town.
Propelled by a perfectly cast trio of stars whose eccentricities shine in singular character roles, Bernie is charmer.
- Directed by Richard Linklater
- Screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth
- Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars
Bernie opens in Toronto May 18, in Vancouver and Montreal June 1, with other cities to follow.
Special to The Globe and Mail