BERNIE (Richard Linklater, 2011)
funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), subject of the true-crime
comedy BERNIE, is one of the most popular people in the small east Texas
town of Carthage. He’s good at his job and goes beyond the call of
duty in following up with new widows to see that they’re getting along
OK. He’s active in church, community theater, and civic organizations.
He’s generous in giving time, money, and knowledge to those requiring
is so beloved that townsfolk refuse to believe he’s guilty of shooting
Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) four times in the back, storing her
corpse in a deep freeze, and lying about her whereabouts for months even
after he confesses. If he did do it, she probably had it coming
anyway. Despite the evidence against Bernie, district attorney Danny
Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) is at a loss how he can get a
would the local populace consider Bernie blameless? In addition to
being the richest woman in town, Marjorie was probably the most
disliked. She had not been on speaking terms for a long time with a
sister who lived in Carthage. She communicated with her son on rare
occasions. People in the area had the impression that she thought she
was better than everyone else.
and Marjorie were already the talk of the town before the 81-year-old
widow’s death at her 39-year-old companion’s hands. Although he was no
stranger to visiting women who’d lost their husbands, Bernie showed
extra attention to Marjorie. She repaid him with gifts far more lavish
than anyone thought her capable of giving. Gossips speculated on who
was seducing who. Before long Bernie and Marjorie were going on trips
to New York City and international destinations. She gave him access to
her finances and made him the sole heir to her vast estate. For all of
this Bernie was subject to Marjorie’s beck and call.
facts that are stranger than fiction and a story surrounding a murder
that is often played as dark comedy, BERNIE exists somewhere between an
Errol Morris documentary and FARGO. In lesser hands the resulting film
might be terribly offensive, but director Richard Linklater, who
co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, walks a fine line that
observes the absurdity around the crime without making light of its
consequences. Nothing’s funny about an old woman getting killed.
Plenty is about the community that gleefully speculates about what
happened but willfully ignores what is known.
mixes the fictionalized recreation of events with documentary-like
interviews of town residents to create a version of the story through
their eyes. Whether it’s their homespun stereotyping of parts of the
state or judgments leapt to from rumors about personal actions, their
perception of reality is so ingrained that nothing can persuade them
that the truth is otherwise. Since the people are sympathetic toward
Bernie, the film tends to be as well. Still, for all of the information
that is on the record, the two individuals in the middle of all the
chatter remain mysteries.
dials down his usual routine and turns in one of his best performances.
The part is a perfect fit in which he can play off his everyman
likability and musical talents to build someone who enchants everyone
with whom he comes in contact. From what we’re permitted to see Bernie
is not a complex character and purposefully so since he’s constructed
from how everyone regards him. To his credit, Black’s expert portrayal
of this friendly naïf makes it hard to dislike Bernie even after he
kills Marjorie. Maybe Bernie is a virtuoso con man--one of his
community theater roles is Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN--but the impulse
is to want to give him some benefit of the doubt.
is a hoot as the showboating DA who provides the voice of reason amid
the media carnival. Wearing glasses, a cowboy hat, and a tie he
sometimes uses to wipe his mouth, he plays up his salt of the earth
credibility to cast suspicion on Bernie’s cultured ways.
Linklater’s films find him operating in a philosophical mode that
encourages contemplating why and how we know what we know. With BERNIE
he humorously explores what happens when those questions aren’t asked.
In the movies it’s funny when empirical belief becomes so rigid that
first impressions can’t be altered. It isn’t when justice is at stake.