Film Review by: Gordon K. Smith
A distant cousin to the Coen brother’s FARGO, Richard Linklater’s wickedly funny BERNIE is another black-comedy retelling of a bizarre true crime in rural America, with heavy doses of local atmosphere and dialect (with the exception that FARGO only claimed to be based on fact – it wasn’t).
The stranger-than-fiction crime in BERNIE happened in 1996 in Carthage, in East Texas; the screenplay is by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, who adapted his own Texas Monthly article on the incident, and has been involved in getting a film version made for years.
Jack Black, in his best performance to date, creates one of the most memorable characters of recent cinema in the title role. Bernie Tiede was the most popular single man in Carthage, a charismatic funeral director, singer, Sunday School teacher, and volunteer director of musicals at the local junior college. He struck up an odd-couple friendship with local widow Marjorie Nugent (a slam-dunk Shirley MacLaine), a grumpy senior with money that her family was constantly fighting over. Over time their relationship grew from a client/customer one to something more co-dependent, obsessive and vaguely sinister. The two had become inseparable, but not in a good way – they went on trips together, lived together, Bernie was handling her affairs… and he had become some kind of emotional/psychological slave to her. It couldn’t turn out well, and it didn’t . Suddenly Marjorie wasn’t seen in public, although Bernie claimed nothing was amiss, she was out of town a lot. Owing much to his smooth-talking salesmanship, he pulled off this charade for nine months. Stop reading here if you hate spoilers. Marjorie’s final resting place was discovered by authorities, and it was a rich bit of irony, considering Bernie’s profession.
Linklater, with his obvious love of genuine Texas characters, films BERNIE in a semi-mockumentary style, with an ongoing chorus of them commenting to the camera on Bernie, Marjorie, the town, and the subsequent trial. Some of these are actors and some actual Carthaginians who knew the people involved; but the accents are the real deal – I can’t think of another movie so specific to East Texas culture. The director who established Black’s rock-and-roll-wild-man persona with SCHOOL OF ROCK gets a beautifully restrained acting job from him here, that still makes use of his musical gifts – the Jewish Black does several lovely renditions of Baptist hymns (and a few classic show tunes.)
Also getting his best showcase in some time here is another actor who got a big career boost from Linklater, DAZED AND CONFUSED alumni Matthew McConaughey. As the District Attorney on Bernie’s case, he’s the real East Texan among the three leads, and plays that card nearly over the top, but still gets the laughs. MacLaine, well, she’s been doing a variation on this role ever since TERMS OF ENDEARMENT; as fine as she is, I’d like to see if she can still play sweet-and-upbeat before she retires.
How much laughs this grim tale ought to be getting is another thing. BERNIE is one of those cases where you can sense a truly great movie just beneath the surface of a good one. With a change of tone, and a switch of director to, say, David Lynch or David Fincher, this could have been more closely related to BLUE VELVET than FARGO. It could have been a disturbing look at the flip side of Norman-Rockwellian Red State America, with kinkier revelations about its main characters. We won’t know, but it makes me yearn for the days when repertory film theaters would double-feature a movie like BERNIE with one like BLUE VELVET, just for that reason.