Richard Linklater | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
I seem to vaguely remember dismissing Bernie as just ‘Another Jack Black Comedy’ back whenever it came out (in the UK, that wasn’t until April 2013), and essentially forgot about it until earlier this month when it came up on the A.V. Club’s 100 best films of the decade (so far), at #38, which made it sound a very worthwhile watch for multiple reasons. Having seen it, however, I don’t think I’d rank it as one of the (half-)decade’s best. That’s putting an unfair burden on it, though: it’s a movie I’m glad I’ve seen, and certainly one with a good many points in its favour.
Black plays the eponymous Bernie Tiede, a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, whose dedication to his job and friendly disposition, both far above and beyond the call of duty, soon find him at the centre of the community and beloved by its people. When the town’s renowned miser dies, Bernie forms a bond with his even-miserlier bitch of a wife (Shirley MacLaine), becoming about the only person she gets on with. They go on expensive holidays, dine at fine restaurants, and soon Bernie is managing her affairs. But she becomes increasingly controlling, making demands on his time that he struggles to meet, and treating him as wickedly as she does everyone else. One day, Bernie shoots her dead. When his crime is discovered, the people of his small town initially refuse to believe he did it; when it’s proven he did, they clamour for him to be released anyway.
By-the-by, this is a completely true story.
(If you’re observing similarities to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, you’re not the first: the magazine article that inspired Bernie, published around the same time as that book’s film adaptation, is called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”.)
Co-writer/director Richard Linklater — who, as we know, often likes to mix up real-life and fiction in the way he produces his movies (cf. Boyhood; the Before trilogy) — tells this story in a docu-drama style, mixing talking head interviews with dramatic recreations. Many (most) of the interviewees are real-life Carthage residents, presumably giving their real recollections and opinions. It fits this narrative to a T, lending veracity to the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true story. They’re also amusing — not in a “laugh at the small town folks” kinda way (though there’s an inherent element of that for us as outside observers, let’s be honest), but in an honest-to-goodness “this is what real life’s like” fashion. This irreverence is how many people really react to and discuss momentous events, and in this case that gels with the tone of what happened.
No doubt spurred on by the fact he’s portraying a real person, Black gives a strong performance. It’s a comedy one, undoubtedly, but far more restrained than he normally offers. It doesn’t suggest a Robin Williams-esque versatility — I don’t imagine Black’s suddenly going to be popping up in serious parts all the time — but it is worthy of note. MacLaine does a lot with a little, her character’s vicious nature conveyed at least as much through glances, sneers, and a particular way of chewing food as it is through words and actions.
The local attorney seeking Bernie’s prosecution is played by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey. I don’t know when we’re meant to deem the start of his “McConnaissance”, but I’m not sure this really qualifies as part of it. Not that he’s bad, but it feels like the kind of played-straight comedy Southerner I’ve seen him do a few times now; indeed, it’s how he comes across in real life, from what I’ve seen. It fits the role like a glove, but doesn’t make for a remarkable performance.
Bernie is one of those stories that you’d never buy if it weren’t true, which makes it perfect fodder for the movies. Native Texan Linklater clearly understands the mindset of those involved and is the right kind of quirky-but-mainstream filmmaker to bring it to the screen. One might argue it doesn’t show suitable reverence to the fact a woman is dead, but the involvement of so many real townspeople suggests it’s got the level and tone bang on. It’s no true-crime mystery, nor the funniest comedy, but it is a tale so engrossingly bizarre that it begs to be heard in full. The real-life post-film ending — Bernie was released from prison last year on the condition he lives above Linklater’s garage — only adds to that fascination.