A dark comedy filled with a charming cast almost makes you forget somebody died in the bizarre true story behind this often hilarious outing.
Once hailed as the voice of Generation X, thanks to his early works Slacker (1991) and to a lesser extent the more popular Dazed and Confused (1993), filmmaker Richard Linklater has never been one to stand still. From his independent animations (Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006)) to more mainstream comedies such as School of Rock (2003) and the remake of The Bad News Bears (2005), and several 24-hour romance movies in between, Linklater has cast a wide net. Indeed, the net may have a been a little too broad at times, making it hard to label the once zeitgeisty director with a distinctive voice.
In Bernie, the title character (played by Jack Black) is a mortician in the small Texas town of Carthage. Beloved by almost all the locals, he is the antithesis of Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), largely thought to be one of the nastiest pieces of work the town has ever seen. When her husband dies, Bernie goes out of his way to comfort the much older widow, and soon enough the pair form an unlikely relationship. As their friendship grows into something more, the duo are inseparable, although this sours as Marjorie becomes increasingly possessive, mean-spirited and emotionally abusive to Bernie. When Bernie has finally had enough, his actions spark a series of events that will change the town forever.
Based on the true story of convicted murderer Bernie Tiede, Linklater’s Bernie aims to restore the black to comedy, or possibly the other way around. Told largely in a documentary style, using a “gossip” motif of some of the actual townspeople discussing their feelings on Bernie and his case, Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth craft a portrait of a Carthage apparently out of touch with reality, or at least existing in one that feels out of kilter with our own. He drives this point home with the introduction of local district attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), a cowboy of a prosecutor who can’t quite believe that a whole town is willing to overlook a violent crime because they like Bernie. ““You got to admit,” says one local. “Nobody could sing ‘Amazing Grace’ like Bernie could.”
Making a comedy around a real-life murder might tread into the grey area of moral ambiguity, especially when one considers that there is actually an elderly women who has been killed at the centre of this tale. It goes without saying that townsfolk and relatives alike attempted to debunk the film’s narrative, while others swear it is a factual account. Linklater’s film certainly only gives one side to the story, almost justifying Nugent’s death through the actions we perceive. Yet this is the satirical point that this witty script is making, and in adapting Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas“, Bernie isn’t so much mocking the extraordinary circumstances around Tiede’s crimes and conviction, but rather the southern sensibilities that Hollandsworth captures so wonderfully in both his article and script.
Black’s cinematic crimes (see: Gulliver’s Travels) can be largely forgiven for this single performance, quietly restraining his boisterousness in favour of an effeminate dignity. MacLaine’s shows her shrewish side as the perfect foil for him, creating a pressure cooker between the pair that is primed to go off at any moment. Still, for at least the third time in the last 12 months, it is McConaughey who steals the show from the first time he appears on-screen, following stand-out turns in Killer Joe and Magic Mike. Seemingly modelling his look on Roy Scheider in Jaws, he has perfected southern fried authority like nobody else can. It is the sum of all these parts that make Bernie a joy to watch, recreating a town and its people down to the last hairdresser. Regardless of whether you agree with Bernie’s actions, few will complain that they didn’t have fun watching them unfold.
Bernie is released in Australia on 16 August 2012 from Madman Films.