Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial, Brandon Smith.
Bernie is a quirky, offbeat, dark and humourous black comedy based on the true story of a murder in small town Texas.
Jack Black is cast against type as the soft-spoken Bernie Tiede, an assistant undertaker who moves to the small town of Carthage in Texas. He quickly ingratiates himself into the close knit community, an integral part of the lifeblood of the town, working with the local church, amateur theatre group and charities. Bernie forms a relationship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich embittered widow who is despised by just about everybody in town.
Marjorie is the meanest person around while Bernie is the nicest person in town, and for a while the odd couple relationship works. Bernie eventually tires of Marjorie’s shrill and domineering ways and psychological bullying and shoots her. The suddenness and brutality of the act comes as a shock given the genial, meandering nature of proceedings till then. Bernie manages to hide the body and convince the townsfolk that she is still alive but feeling unwell. He uses her money to continue to fund beneficial projects for the town in her name.
When Marjorie’s body is found in the freezer of her garage some months later, the town is divided in their opinions over whether Bernie is guilty or innocent.
This black comedy from Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused, etc) is based on the article Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas, which detailed the murder that occurred in small town in Texas in 1996 and its aftermath. Linklater has written the script in collaboration with author Skip Hollandsworth, and uses the story as the fodder for a morbidly funny black comedy.
Linklater, who worked with Black on the marvellous School Of Rock, seems to know how to get the best out of his star. Here Black manages to rein in his usual flamboyant manic energy to deliver a more nuanced, complex and subtle performance that hints at a darkness beneath the surface. Black gets to create a character here rather than a broad caricature, and this is easily his best and most rounded performance. Black captures his effeminate mannerisms and fussy nature, and makes Bernie a sympathetic character. During the end credits we get to see some photographs of the real life Bernie, who is serving a life term in prison. We also see Black talking to Bernie in prison as he tries to get some insights into the character.
MacLaine brings a mix of arrogance and sharp wit to her underwritten role, but essentially she delivers a one-note performance as the sour, hateful but lonely Marjorie. Matthew McConaughey has a winning presence as Danny Buck, the ambitious, laconic prosecutor trying to convict Bernie of murder, against the wishes of the populace.
Linklater gives the film a semi-documentary feel. He incorporates clever intertitles and talking head interviews (a mixture of actors and some real life residents of Carthage), creating a kind of Greek chorus that gives us a strong sense of the flavour of life in this otherwise undistinguished small town. These touches add colour and authenticity to the narrative. Linklater’s genuine affection for his Texan roots shines through the narrative structure of Bernie. With Bernie, Linklater again proves that, sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction!