- Director:Richard Linklater
- Cast:Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
- Release Date:August 16, 2012
- Running time:99 minutes
- Film Worth:$17.00
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A truly strange and original creation, based on a true story, which doesn't judge its curious characters.
Admirably and effortlessly shifting between genres, styles and budgets, Richard Linklater has forged a name for himself as one of American cinema’s most consistently fascinating voices, turning over films at a rate at odds with the laidback charm that infuses so much of his work. From indie classics (Slacker, Dazed And Confused, Before Sunrise) and experimental works (A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life) to more commercial studio fare (School Of Rock), Linklater’s career has been nothing if not eclectic. And with Bernie, the director delivers another original work, which, like many of his best films, is deceptively simple from the outset. Scratch just below its surface, however, and the film is packed with rich themes, thought-provoking questions, and lasting resonance.
Bernie concerns a real-life case that Texan-born Linklater had been personally following for over a decade. The facts of the case have been clearly established: in 1996, Bernie Tiede, a 39-year-old assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage in Texas shot his regular companion, 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, four times in the back. When her body was found nine months later in a freezer, Bernie – who had become sole benefactor of Marjorie’s will – confessed to it all. The film, therefore, doesn’t find its pull as a murder mystery, but rather in the bizarre context in which the events played out.
In writing the screenplay, Linklater drew on an intriguing piece that he read in The Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth (who also receives a credit as co-writer) – and it’s in this article that the writer/director found his film. While the people of Carthage were relayed the objective facts concerning the murder, they just didn’t believe that Bernie – a notoriously loved resident who led the church choir and touchingly took his role as a funeral assistant very seriously – could be responsible. And even if he did succumb to a brief moment of weakness or insanity, many believed that Marjorie – an old Grinch uniformly despised around town – deserved it anyway. And it’s here that the film opens up to a host of compelling questions regarding the notion of a town as a collective possessing its own values of right and wrong.
Never one to be weighed down by traditional storytelling devices, Linklater makes the offbeat but effective choice to tell Bernie’s story through the lens of gossip and hearsay. The director intercuts the main narrative with interviews with the people of Carthage (many of whom are real residents playing versions of themselves) spilling all their theories and rumours on what went down. It’s here that the film finds much of its strange humour. And Bernie is very much a black comedy, aiming to provoke both laughter and a sense of shock. Considering that it’s based on a real-life murder, it’s a tricky tone to nail, but Linklater never oversteps the line, and has crafted a truly strange and original hybrid of tones, all of which lend texture and character to the story.
The director owes much of the film’s success to his leading man, Jack Black, who coincidentally delivers his best performance since the duo’s last team-up in 2003’s School Of Rock. Linklater again manages to get the best out of Black’s mischievous grin and larger-than-life-presence (which, when unfettered, can become grating). Black plays Bernie as finicky and more than a tad campy, but we’re easily won over by his warm, generous spirit, and the actor is smart enough to lace his character with just enough melancholy so that he always holds our sympathy. But there’s also a deft distance to Black’s performance, and while we remain wholly on Bernie’s side, the actor leaves his character awash in intriguing ambiguity. Was Bernie’s obsession with the town’s old ladies, rather than women his own age, indication that he was a closeted homosexual? Was it loneliness that propelled him to basically become Marjorie’s manservant? And when he shot Marjorie and resumed his everyday life, what was running through his head? Did he want to be caught?
As Marjorie, Shirley MacLaine is terrific, stepping into the shoes of this sour and suffocating old bat who finally causes Bernie to snap. It’s a crackling, comic performance from the veteran actress, who occasionally lets you catch glimpses of the lonely widow that Bernie felt compelled to befriend. The other supporting player, and the film’s voice of reason, is a top-notch Matthew McConaughey as district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, who actually makes the unprecedented move of shifting the trial to another district because he’s convinced that no jury would convict Bernie in his hometown. Danny has a cocky swagger about him, but he’s more exasperated by Bernie’s case than damning. Hearing two women in the local grocer declaring that they’d never convict Bernie, a flabbergasted Danny questions them, “Y’all know he confessed, don’t you?” Linklater mines these inherently comic contradictions for all they’re worth, but never ridicules the townspeople – a central character in this film – and that’s ultimately why it works. Bernie is a comedy, but it never laughs at its subjects; rather, it tells their story with a bemused curiosity and Linklater’s trademark compassion.