Director: Richard Linklater
Lots of films get laughs by poking fun at hicks. However, few do so in as affectionate and poignant a way as Bernie, a quirky sleeper hit in the vein of Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. Set in Carthage, Texas – which, as its townsfolk reliably inform us, is in the non-liberal, non-Mexican part of the state – Bernie tells the story of the eponymous funeral director, churchgoer, singer, murderer and philanthropist. Yes, you read that right.
Bernie Tiede (a rotund and remarkably restrained Jack Black) is popular with the folks in Carthage. If you have kids, he’ll always remember to ask after them; he takes good care of elderly widows, bringing them flowers and care packages; and when you die, he’ll have you looking real nice in your casket. All of which could of course be slightly unnerving, but so sincere is Bernie, and so faithful are the townsfolk in their affection for him, that nobody thinks twice about any of it. Yes, there is idle speculation about Bernie’s sexuality – he might be gay; he certainly wears his pants awful high – but at the end of the day, that’s between him and God.
Bernie is so popular that his reputation survives his shacking up with rich, miserable old widow Marjorie Nugent (the wonderfully sour Shirley MacLaine). Accompanying Marjorie around the world as a sort of glorified eunuch butler, Bernie is gradually worn down by her jealousy and possessiveness. One day, he shoots her four times in the back and hides her body in the freezer, beneath the jam tarts. Remarkably, his reputation survives this as well – though, as the townsfolk openly concede, she was a nasty old bitch anyway.
In fact, and much to the dismay of the self-aggrandising District Attorney (Matthew McConaughey), some refuse to even believe Bernie did it, despite his confession to the crime. Most are simply bemused at Bernie’s failure to cover his tracks, proposing a series of alarmingly detailed ways he could have killed Marjory and disposed of the body without being caught.
Bernie is a fantastic movie, and I don’t expect to see a better one this year. The film is based on real events, chronicled in a Texas Monthly magazine article entitled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” and skillfully blends fiction, mockumentary, and documentary. It earns most of its chuckles during the “interviews” with Carthage’s inhabitants, and the juxtaposition of their blunt observations with the more subtle overtones of the enacted scenes. The result is quite extraordinary – a charmingly morbid film which keeps sneakily breaking the fourth wall, constantly winking at its own folksy naiveté. Many of Bernie’s actions are consistent with those of a psychopath, but that’s not the film’s angle. Then again, the film’s angle is constructed so deliberately that we can’t help wondering whether we’re being fed a line. Director Richard Linklater bites his lip as he protests his own wide-eyed innocence, and recognising this is half the fun.
Jack Black gives his best performance yet, and anybody who dislikes Jack Black will probably agree. His Bernie is a soft, mild-mannered man, the kind so humbly virtuous that in his hands selling overpriced coffins, devising funereal gimmicks, and beautifying corpses seem the very highest of callings. The polar opposite of Black’s normal purview, Bernie gives Black the chance to show the full range of his acting – and singing – abilities. An Oscar nod would not be beyond the realms of possibility.
5 / 5 stars