Clearly, director Richard Linklater has a non-visual sense of humour. He finds amusement in words and people's personalities rather than sight gags or slapstick. It's very British in spite of his American heritage. Fittingly, Bernie
is a dark comedy about death and murder based on true events.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is liked by everyone. His lady companion, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), on the other hand, is despised. As one Carthage resident points out, "there are people who would have killed her for $5." But Bernie saw the good in everyone and he found amicable qualities in the mean old widow... for a while. Bernie was also incredibly kind, generous and he had hard time saying "no" to people. Everyone has their limits though, and Mrs. Nugent finally pushed him too far. One day Bernie snapped and killed her. To this day there are people who do not believe it's true even though Bernie confessed.
In spite of the talents of Black, MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, they are outshined by the townspeople who are interviewed throughout the film. These people exude genuine small town character, charming the audience with their quaint sayings and amusing observations. Some of the people interviewed are actual residents of Carthage who knew both Bernie and Marjorie and reminisce on-camera about before and after the incident.
The opening scene is a detailed explanation of how to prepare a body for viewing; Bernie was a funeral director, or more commonly a mortician, and was often a guest lecturer at his alma mater because of the skill and care to detail he brought to the craft. This was another aspect praised by his fellow townspeople. The residents appreciated the lifelike quality of their departed loved ones, and the funeral home operator envied his ability to comfort and sell at the same time. In fact, Bernie was so popular and well-liked by Carthage, Sheriff Danny Buck requested that the trial be moved because he was sure he couldn't get a jury to convict in town - people told him as much.
Linklater's fascination with people and their stories comes through in this film as well. He co-wrote the script with Skip Hollandsworth, author of the Texas Monthly article that first told the story of the murdered widow and her gay companion. It's difficult to determine if any of the people depicted are caricatures, though there's been no claim of personal misrepresentation by any of those involved. Footage of the real Bernie during the credits shows that Black even spent time with him while preparing for the film. On the other hand, the sheriff said the narrative is one-sided, sympathetically conveying the events from Bernie's perspective while ignoring the victim. This is true to some extent, but the film is titled "Bernie."
The dark comedy maintains its humour for the first half of the picture, but it becomes less engaging after the murder as the pace slows and tension decreases. Nonetheless, Bernie
is still a good showing from all involved and worth a watch.
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black
, Shirley MacLaine
and Matthew McConaughey