Richard Linklater has a wide range of movies on his resume. You have his trippy animated films like WAKING LIFE and A SCANNER DARKLY and his more conventional comedy SCHOOL OF ROCK. BERNIE is a dark comedy that doesn't easily fit into any of the groups of his previous films. However there is something in its core that reminded me of his films SLACKER and DAZED AND CONFUSED. Place and time are key in those films and they also play a role in this one.
Based on the true story Bernie Tiede, the film is the tale of two unique characters coming together. But it is also a tale about the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie (Jack Black, HIGH FIDELITY) came to Carthage to serve as the town's assistant funeral director and quickly became the most liked person there. He was a kind gentleman who had a way of easing the grief of those who had just lost a loved one. This made him good at his job, but his smooth talking helped, as well. Bernie could up-sell a customer on a coffin like the employee of the month at McDonald's does with extra large fries. His civic dedication to the town made him even more popular. However his biggest challenge was winning over the widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, THE APARTMENT).
Marjorie's husband was a well-liked bank manager, but when she took over his business she would rip up loan papers just out of spite. She was the kind of woman whose expression made you feel like she was smelling something rotten all around her constantly. Persistence was what Bernie used to break down her walls. Soon Bernie became her personal assistant/financial advisor/confidant/whipping post. So the community was not surprised when they a find out Bernie put four bullets in her back.
In a genius move Linklater melds documentary style interviews with narrative fiction and blends the two by casting real Carthage residents as themselves in the fiction portion. While certain individuals do stick out they all come together as representative of the community's sentiment towards Bernie and Marjorie. By hearing firsthand from real people we get a sense that not only Carthage, but Texas, is a contributing factor in this tale. One colorfully direct man does a wonderful job of explaining the various sections of Texas and those that live there. The way he describes a neighboring section as nearly subhuman is hilarious.
So why did Bernie do it? Linklater presents various scenarios and allows the audience to make up their own mind. The community of Carthage is quickly willing to forgive him. Many in the town saw Marjorie's murder as something inevitable... whether it was Bernie or someone else. The townsfolk rally in his defense. Eager district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, DAZED AND CONFUSED) presents a different point of view that he lays out in the trial. He sees Bernie as a con artist looking to get a piece of a rich widow's fortune. To have the lifestyle he wants he needs money — more money than an assistant funeral director makes. But Bernie is more complex than the black and white portraits of either side.
I remember the first time I took notice to Jack Black in his stellar performance in HIGH FIDELITY. Not since that great role has Black been so good. Linklater gave his SCHOOL OF ROCK star a complex character and Black brings him to life with nuance and precision. The role of Bernie is one where a comedic actor could so easily slip into scenery chewing and buffoonery, but Black captures the humanity, quirks and flaws of the man. In some ways it reminded me of Jim Carrey's performance in I LOVE YOU, PHILIP MORRIS, however Black brings more subtlety. Through the great script and Black's performance, we wonder is Bernie a conman? Is he gay? Or is he asexual? Is he murderer? That question is not really up for debate however the film presents a scenario where we wonder what we would do in the same situation.
Many have called BERNIE a black comedy, which is a genre it easily fits into. However it plays more like a dramedy. It's funny but not in a uproarious sort of way. It walks a very thin line and allows comedy to come out naturally, instead of being forced. In addition to Black's wonderful performance the key to this film success is Linklater's attention time and place, which is so often neglected in films. One could argue there would be no Bernie if it wasn't for Carthage, Texas.
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