The latest film from Dazed and Confused and Slacker director Richard Linklater, Bernie, is a bit of a rare bird. Blending documentary filmmaking almost seamlessly with coal black comedy, the film is more evocative of the works of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog thanks to its true life story. Subtly creepy, thematically spellbinding, laugh out loud hilarious, and featuring the best performance of Jack Black’s career in the lead, this film stands toe to toe with the beloved director’s best.
Black stars as Bernie Tiede, the assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie cares about his job and his town so much that he literally bends over backwards to please everyone around him. One day while delivering a bouquet of flowers to Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the most hated woman in town, following the death of her husband and for no particular reason, Bernie begins a multi-year romantic and financial relationship with the execrable dowager that ultimately leads to Bernie growing so disgusted with his former friend that he shoots her several times in the back with a rifle, killing her. The impending trial shakes the town to its very core thanks to a showboating assistant district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) who knows he can’t get a fair trial in Carthage because Bernie was so well liked and Marjorie was so abjectly loathed that no jury would ever convict him.
Based on a bizarre real life case, Linklater uses his actors to dramatize the story, but he also includes testimonials from actual people in Carthage that were familiar with the case either on a personal or passing basis. These on camera interviews are more playful than one would get from a straight documentary, but instead of distracting from the more fictionalized elements of the film, they lend an air of authenticity to the production.
The story might be a bit of a tough sell for some on the surface, but there’s a lot more going on here than just a bizarre murder mystery thanks to some extremely strong characters and great performances from a capable cast behind them. MacLaine and Linklater make the wise decision to make Marjorie a woman of few words, hardly saying anything in her first few scenes, but creating someone who can easily be seen as pure evil. McConaughey gets the role with the most comedic relief, but it’s also interesting that the guy with the most suspect social skills actually might be the only person telling the actual truth.
This brings us to Black in the lead as the possibly closeted and generally kind Bernie. Aside from singing numerous gospel songs and showtunes in the film (the one gag that does honestly get old after the third or fourth time it happens), Black allows his vocal register to retract to a John Waters styled murmur, and his usual brand of physical comedy is completely absent here in place of slight fey mannerisms and expressions. He’s exactly the kind of person the town wouldn’t want to believe could kill someone (his acts of kindness to the locals don’t cease after suspicions are raised, but they intensify), but the audience can see both where the character is coming from and how that could easily turn into something a lot darker.
After dabbling in studio comedies, remakes, and arthouse fare for the past few years with varying success, Linklater reasserts himself as a true filmmaker with real vision. While fine for what they were School of Rock and the remake of The Bad News Bearsreally could have been made by anyone, and aside from A Scanner Darkly and the sequel Before Sunset he hasn’t really pushed himself all that hard as a filmmaker for roughly a decade. Bernie has real personality and the stamp of someone who understands this particular southern subculture completely and fully. The subject matter might be dark and pretty twisted when one stops to think about it, but it’s a film made with the utmost degree of love and understanding. It’s a thin line to walk, but Linklater doesn’t falter in his vision, crafting one of the best dark comedies that the Cohen brothers never made.
Cast: Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Top image: A scene from Bernie. Courtesy Alliance Films.