If you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten path, but not too far into the cinematic wilds, give Bernie a try. It’s the latest from the always adventurous Richard Linklater, director of such diverse great films as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and The School of Rock.
It tells the story of Bernie Tiede, a man who endeared himself to a small town community and eventually to one of its wealthiest and most hated members, an aging recent widow named Marjorie Nugent. In its typically folksy way, it opens with title cards that read “What you’re fixin’ to see is… a true story.”
Bernie is the nicest man alive, it seems, and Marjorie is the meanest woman who ever lived, it seems. Most of the material for the screenplay came from the mouths of town gossips, many featured, documentary-like in the film. One day, mean bests nice two out of three and Bernie shoots Marjorie in the back with an “armadillo” gun four times. Bernie and Marjorie are not so much played as inhabited by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.
Bernie, an undertaker, is introduced very cleverly as he teaches a master class in how to prepare a body for burial. With a pair of tweezers, he plucks out the subject’s “one stray wrong hair” and nonchalantly blows it away. As he Super Glues the subject’s lips together, he tells the students: “Even the slightest hint of teeth can be disastrous. We cannot have grief tragically become a comedy.” This sets things up nicely.
Linklater has been criticized for—I think deftly—spinning a murder case into a comedy. Just before he shoots Marjorie, Bernie is grooming her for an evening out and plucks one stray hair, blowing it away with the same earlier gesture. After the murder, he buries her in a garage freezer—once an undertaker, always an undertaker—and then goes on with life, explaining her disappearance from the public eye by saying she had a stroke. Nobody likes her. Nobody is looking for her, except her stock broker. He almost gets away with it.
I’m not spoiling anything with my plot description. The pleasures in Bernie are in the telling rather than the tale. I love how everything is an upside-down version of usual small town murder cases where a member of the society is killed and everyone loves and remembers him or her fondly, or seems to. The killer is usually a reviled, mysterious loner who turns out to be a monster, or seems to have been.
Bernie was so well loved and Marjorie so despised that the state prosecutor (playfully played by Matthew McConaughey) has the trial moved to another county knowing a fair trial is impossible. Bernie will surely be acquitted by the locals.
This twist reminded me of a creativity game used by writers: Imagine clichés and then write their opposites. It seems, though, that it’s all really a sly way for Linklater to have us think outside of the box about criminal cases and their struggle to get at the truth amidst the ensuing court of media and public opinion.
Black is working with Linklater for the second time here. The first time was the comedy The School of Rock and comparing the two roles is interesting. In that film, he was extroverted and wore his character and motivations on his sleeve. As Bernie, he’s introverted and inscrutable, just as murder suspects always are to those on the outside looking in.
Definitely keep watching through the end credits. This folksy movie turns out to be, as much as anything, about the making of a folk hero—and a folk song.