Meet Bernie: a man who has truly found his place in this world as an assistant funeral director and beloved member of the community in the small Texas town of Carthage. Soft spoken with an arguably effeminate Southern accent, of a round stature but always with admirable posture, Bernie Tiede is a gentleman. And a murderer. But the town of Carthage would really just like you to know that he is a gentleman.
Introducing the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival Thursday night (it opened the event) writer/director Richard Linklater described “Bernie” as a “labor of love film I’ve been wanting to make for a long time” — 12 to 13 years, to be more specific. But settling into our seats, watching this narrative unfold, one could see why this was a story that the filmmaker would be itching to tell. It’s odd, it’s messy, it’s true.
Based on a Texas Monthly article written by Skip Hollandsworth — who also cowrote the screenplay with Linklater — back in 1998, Bernie is as real a guy as the circumstances that make his story so noteworthy. While not a true documentary, Linklater does use the genre’s convention of talking heads, and the story of “Bernie” is narrated by a collection of key characters and townsfolk (some of them, evidently actual Carthagians) looking back on a scandal that no one really seems to be treating as such.
When Bernie first rolls into town as the new assistant funeral director it’s not long before he has won his new neighbors over. A dedicated and knowledgeable funeral professional, he goes above and beyond the call of duty to comfort and check in on the widows of Carthage. But one widow, the particularly uppity and difficult-to-please Marjorie Nugent takes some extra coddling, and Bernie rises to the challenge. She also happens to be the richest widow (and person) in town and soon enough gossip starts regarding the nature of her relationship with Bernie, as they grow closer and she gives him full access to her healthy dividends.
But while the town looks down their noses at Nugent (while she scowls at them from her ivory tower) Bernie remains a beloved part of the community, taking an active part in the local theatre company, starting an art festival, even coaching a little league team. So when the widow goes missing and Bernie is eventually arrested and confesses to murdering her, the town remains on his side – some citizens going so far as to hint that he did them a favor. The film takes on an investigative doc tone, mixing dark humor with something of a character study, as we hear and simultaneously see, what kind of a man Bernie is, and what kind of a woman drove him to commit murder. But the bright colors and cheerful manner in which such the tale is presented make it clear whose side of this story we are on, and things don’t become somber until it’s Bernie that we’re threatened with losing.
Burrowing into the title role is Jack Black, who, in a change of direction isn’t the slacker idiot, but instead really brings an amount of patience, kindness and passion to the part that makes it clear why the town (and the filmmakers) are on his character’s side. Playing opposite Black is Shirley MacLaine as the widow Nugent, who, with a sardonic zest, brings out the worst in Bernie through her increasingly unreasonable demands and dependence on him. The two make for an an excellent onscreen pair, as we watch Bernie win Marjorie over, and then slowly be squashed underneath her thumb.
But if there’s anything sinister boiling beneath Bernie’s surface, Black doesn’t let it show. In fact most of conflict of the film is a little too easy, as we are told to just go along with it. “Bernie’s a nice guy,” the film seems to tell us, “but we all have our breaking points. Plus, she was a bitch.” The only person who does seem to be on the side of the deceased Nugent is local DA and King of Charisma, Danny Buck (played brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey who we wish we could see in more roles like this). DA Buck always gets his man – generally with a wink and in the most headline-grabbing way. With his sights set on Bernie, this showboat of an attorney is determined to take him down. His talking head, along with those of the local townsfolk, make up the charm and humor of the film, as they offer up their Southern Wisdom-soaked takes on Bernie and Marjorie and set a context that make this story distinctly small town and distinctly southern. It’s a slow burn of a crime thriller for sure, but one that echoes the pace of small-town living while demonstrating how too many little things can build to a fever pitch that’s too much to bear.
“Bernie” does falter somewhat when reality begins to set it in. As he faces prison, and the town faces losing him, characters that began as larger-than-life — bordering on parody even — become subdued. In the final courtroom scene, Buck, who is set up to be the kind of guy chewing the scenery on his lawyerly stage, fizzles out, and Bernie, throughout the trial process remains with his head hung low, quiet and reserved. Basically, we never see anyone go nuts. Even the murder itself, while jarring, is not shocking, because even as it’s happening, the film is rationalizing it with a heavy hand, lest we forget: “Bernie’s a good man.” As one-sided as “Bernie” is, you never really feel that you’re getting a true sense of the man behind the affable smile and eagerness to please, which leaves a looming sense that there might be something missing from this story. But perhaps it’s that missing piece of the puzzle that makes the final shot so unsettling, and one that leaves this story on a note more haunting than you might expect. This is certainly not a tell-all from the man himself, but from the town who loved and wanted to shelter him.
Bernie doesn’t currently have a distributor or release date, but we’re pulling for it to line something up soon, as, if anything, this odd little story is well worth a repeat viewing. [B]