Directed By: Richard Linklater
Written By: Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey
Director of Photography: Dick Pope, Editor: Sandra Adair, Production Designer: Bruce Curtis, Original Music: Graham Reynolds
The opening scene of Bernie, a not-so-dark comedy from Richard Linklater about a dark subject, begins with Jack Black as the titular character giving a lecture. His tone is gentle and warm, his mannerisms quirky but spirited, and his instructions simple to follow. In fact, it takes a few seconds before a pull out by the camera reveals Bernie is standing in front of a dead body, and preparing it for a funeral. Linklater’s tone is frothy in its lightness; his camera puts the grotesque in close-up, but often under soft lighting that makes it feel gentle. So what is a gentle man doing murder for?
And Bernie is certainly one of the more heartwarming comedies about a terrible crime, and a true one. Set in the town of Carthage, Texas (East Texas is quite different from the oil men and weirdos of the other parts, a local tells us), Linklater spins together documentary and recreation about one man whose story is too good to not be on film, the type Hitchcock would have ate up with giddy delight. It’s strange and odd in all the ways one would never expect, and Black makes us fall in love with his adorable character, even if he does something very, very wrong.
If you walk out before the credits of Bernie, chances are you wouldn’t even think twice about that the interviewees of the film are actual people, partially because their comments are so odd and amusing. But these are not just actors standing in for the town of Carthage, those in the interviews are the real folks that knew Bernie (and many who still support him). As we learn from these folks, Bernie is possibly the best friend one could ever have. Charming and always thinking of ways to help those who mourn at the Carthage funeral home, Bernie is portrayed as a lovely personality that brings warmth to the community, helping anyone and everyone he can.
Bernie even goes out of his way to be kind toward a devilish old woman Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine with dead cold eyes. While Marjorie first rejects Bernie and his desires to comfort her after losing her husband, she eventually becomes attached to the charming guy, and the two become life partners it seems (the townspeople muse on whether there was a sexual element, or if Bernie’s mannerisms are hiding some closeted tendencies, which leads to a couple of the film’s more amusing Texasisms).
But things start to go south between the two, and during a momentary lapse of reason, Bernie puts four shots of an air gun into Marjorie’s back, and then heads at great lengths to hide it. Soon enough, Bernie’s at court, defending himself from a wild and crazy District Attorney played by an electric Matthew McConaughey (pitch perfect in the role, including an array of oddball moments, including when he wipes his mouth with his tie).
Bernie, the film, however, isn’t sure what to make of this strange tale, which is why Linklater often let’s the townspeople muse instead of the camera. It’s a bit odd to see the documentary footage mixed in with staged scenes that go beyond the Errol Morris-type we’re used to, and Linklater makes it all the more confusing by including some of the film’s actors in these documentary moments. But somehow the film seems to find a flow on its own. Shot in bright colors, Linklater never makes Bernie truly dark as much as winks at the more sinister aspects of the story (the film not-so-slyly cuts from the murder to Bernie performing The Music Man). He often comes close to ostracizing the town and making it into some sort of backwards town, but the only crime these people seem to have is that they trust Bernie, and can’t possibly seem him as a monster. And it helps that Black, straying away from his often archtype roles as a sloucher, is full of life and energy throughout the film. Walking on his tiptoes, singing beautifully in the choir, Black brings life and energy to the role that turns dispells sense that Bernie could ever be anything but a Southern gentleman. And while the film remains objective, Black certainly shows his love for this character. There’s no “Free Bernie” moment at the end of the film, just a sense of, what a strange tale. Bernie is a Lynchian nightmare restored into a colorful dream.