Bernie is based on a true crime story, first told by Skip Hollandsworth in 1998 and rehashed in the New York Times by the victim’s nephew a few months ago. In the hands of Richard Linklater, directing Jack Black and Shirley Maclaine from a script he wrote with Hollandsworth, it becomes a wonderfully odd bird of a movie, a documentary murder comedy that sets a small ensemble of actors to play in a garden of locals playing themselves.
Bernie Tiede first came to the East Texas small town of Carthage as an assistant funeral director. He quickly established himself as a superstar assistant funeral director, and soon after that as an all-around local celebrity, directing community theater and singing in church. He was an especially able hand with the “D.L.O.L.’s” — the dear little old ladies whom he met in the course of burying their husbands. And he became the especially close friend of one of them, Marjorie Nugent, a widely reviled sourpuss whose vacations Bernie joined, whose affairs Bernie managed, and whose own freezer Bernie hid her in after discharging an “armadillo gun” into her back.
There’s nothing common about this story, and it’s testament to Linklater’s sure hand with Texas oddballs and odd balls of yarn that it never feels slack or unengaging. For most of the movie, the actors perform in short, gestural scenes, three- or four-line interactions — most of MacLaine’s lines aren’t lines at all, just frowns dripping with what some call “pure cussedness.” The actors provide a connective tissue between the documentary scenes, interviews with people who knew the real-life Bernie and Marjorie. It’s a particular form of documentary, a long way from vérité. It’s probably closer to say that Linklater has cast these townsfolk to play themselves. (Indeed, the third and fourth quotes in Hollandsworth’s article appear right next to one another in the film.)
The Carthage cast goes a long way towards establishing the town as an organic presence, functionally a character. While the story ostensibly travels outside of Carthage — Marjorie takes Bernie on vacation to Russia — Linklater amplifies the geographic unity of the story by making their vacation photos obvious Photoshops and making no efforts to disguise Carthage in the occasional scene set somewhere else (instead of, say, using a camera filter on the same environment to suggest another locale.) The movie’s artifice feels a lot like that Photoshopping — Black and MacLaine have been dropped into this organic environment to restage these true events. That’s not at all to say their performances are hollow or unpersuasively stagey; Black in particular is perfectly cast, his clown restrained but not effaced, giving a sense of how Bernie’s inner light might have captivated Carthage.
After establishing this contrast between the main players and the rest of the town, there’s a stumble when McConaughey first appears as the D.A. who would eventually charge Bernie. (His mother sits in, hilariously, for one of the townspeople.) But his ultimate role is deeply satisfying, as the only man in Carthage who believes that murder should be punished, pecked to death by Bernie’s fans who either can’t believe he did it or are glad he did.
There’s an interesting theme about class and sexuality in the story–for the people of Carthage who know and love Bernie, his effeminacy (the movie never plainly confirms it, but the New York Times writer says Bernie is gay) can’t be twisted into a motive. But when the DA gets the trial moved to San Augustine, which one of the townsfolk describes as “let’s dig a hole in the backyard and cook something, throw another tire on the fire,” where a jury with “more tattoos than teeth” is empaneled, there’s no more sympathy for Bernie. When the DA rope-a-dopes Bernie into correcting his pronunciation of “Les Miserables” from the stand, all is lost. And Bernie’s supporters, who come fifty miles for him and picnic on the grass outside the courthouse, know it.
What did you see? Did it have it coming?