SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | April 26, 2012
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial, Brady Coleman, Richard Robichaux
With Bernie, Richard Linklater has masterfully told a true Texas tale. Well, to be more accurate he’s told a true East Texas tale, which as the film hilariously explains is really a whole ‘nother ballgame. And importantly he’s told it in an authentic east Texas dialect, which is key if you’re poking fun at Texans. Of course, take my pronouncement on authenticity with a grain of salt; I’m from Central Texas, my heart lies in West Texas, and I’ve spent most of the last twenty years in Austin, Texas. But I have driven through East Texas several times and eaten some amazing barbecue there, and that ought to count for something.
Cowritten by the fabulous Skip Hollandsworth and based on a story he wrote in the January 1998 issue of Texas Monthly titled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” Bernie presents the story of mortician Bernie Tiede’s (Jack Black) murder of his aged benefactress, well-to-do widower Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Nugent, a long-time resident of the small Texas town of Carthage is well known enough to be generally despised around town for her hateful and vindictive ways. Bernie on the other hand, a more recent Louisiana transplant, is a beloved figure, respected by the townspeople for his generous, outgoing and compassionate nature.
Arriving in town after being hired over the phone by funeral director Don Leggett (Rick Dial) to fill the role of assistant funeral director and mortician, Bernie quickly shows himself to be a people person, providing a comforting voice of compassion during people’s times of grief. It was not long after the 1990 funeral for Nugent’s husband that Bernie began spending time with Carthage’s most contrary citizen. Much to the surprise of many local residents in no time at all the two were constant companions and Bernie had gone part-time at the funeral home in order to devote more time to Nugent’s care. Soon enough the relationship turned to servitude until in what Bernie later claimed was an unplanned impulse killing, he snapped, firing four shots into Nugent’s back with her .22 rifle. What followed was nine months of his keeping her body in the deep freeze and her death a secret while he played the role of a benefactor to the community with Nugent’s money until the body was finally discovered and he was arrested, tried and convicted for her murder.
From Bernie’s closeted (or repressed) homosexuality to his good standing in Carthage being so strong that DA Danny “Buck” Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) successfully requested a change of venue in order to fairly prosecute their case, the story is so bizarre in so many ways that it’s shocking it wasn’t made into a movie years earlier. Presented in a documentary style featuring recurring talking head interview segments with Carthage citizens, which at times gives the scenes with Bernie and Nugent the feel of being re-enactments, the flow of the film is at times hampered but the dialogue and dialect of the very authentic looking and feeling Carthage citizens is so hilarious that it’s hard to complain. While McConaughey turns in his most memorable performance in years, I’m almost tempted to credit the supporting cast of Carthage citizens with stealing the show. But then there’s Jack Black…
Black, well established as a comedic force, may be one of the most underrated all-around actors out there, but in playing Bernie he gets a chance to spotlight his depth and he takes full advantage of the opportunity. As well, since Bernie was both a soloist at his church and involved in community theater, Black gets to show off his more than capable song and dance skills. Bringing an understated sadness to a character that could have easily been played as buffoon or caricature, Black portrays a Bernie that is enigmatic in his restraint combined with his flamboyance.
The viewer may draw conclusions but the film’s genius lies in never letting us know if Bernie is some kind of sociopath and confidence man or if he’s merely a well intentioned person pushed past his breaking point. And through Davidson’s cartoonish Texas-accented posturing and tough talk the film reminds us of the all too common shallowness of those who insist on portraying everything as black and white, as good versus evil. In posing all the right questions without providing any answers, this gem of a film, equal parts black comedy, true crime story, morality tale and courtroom drama, manages to be that all too rare hilariously thought provoking unexpected film.