Some films—even good ones—fall neatly into one category or another, but I often find myself drawn to movies that defy pigeonholing, like Richard Linklater’s Bernie. Is it a comedy? Yes, in part. Is it a character study? Certainly. Is it a true-crime story? Absolutely. Does it have two outstanding performances in the leading roles? Definitely. If you like Jack Black and/or Shirley MacLaine, the movie is a must-see.
Black plays the title character, who prepares bodies for their final viewing at a funeral parlor in Carthage, Texas and prides himself on his work. An outgoing fellow, he is well-liked throughout the community, where the subject of homosexuality never enters the conversation. MacLaine portrays a wealthy woman who is, by all accounts, the meanest person in town. No one has a good word to say about her, and no one can—or even wants to—get close to her…until Bernie enters her life.
That said, the less you know about Bernie before you see it the more you will enjoy the process of discovery that Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth had in mind. It was Hollandsworth’s 1998 article in Texas Monthly about the almost unbelievable real-life doings in the town of Carthage that inspired the Austin-based filmmaker to pursue this as a film project, which turned into a labor of love.
It is also a portrait of East Texas. Our guide to this distinct area of a diverse state is Sonny Carl Davis, whom some film buffs may remember as the costar of Eagle Pennell’s landmark indie feature The Whole Shootin’ Match. His presence denotes a continuity in Texas storytelling on film; besides, he lights up the screen.
Linklater also cleverly integrates footage of real-life citizens who remember the real-life characters played by Black and MacLaine, further blurring the line between documentary and dramatization. (The woman who smokes up a storm while casting aspersions on MacLaine’s character is played by costar Matthew McConaughey’s mother.)
Bernie is both entertaining and continually surprising; that’s a welcome combination in my book.