Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth (screenplay)
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey and Brady Coleman
Murder isn’t completely wrong when the person is unlikable, is it? That grouchy old lady, who hisses at the idea of warm conversation and enjoys treating the world as if it owes her something; if she were killed, would anybody really care?
The people of Carthage, Texas cared. Not for her (Shirley MacLaine), though, but her killer, her kind manservant Bernie (Jack Black). Bernie is based on true events, just as almost every movie not based on a novel is. The wonderful writer/director Richard Linklater is preceding, though, and he treats the truth as more than a novelty.
In between watching Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine give two wonderful tragicomic performances, there are several documentary-like talking head interviews with townspeople of Carthage, some of which actually lived and experienced the tale. This adds just as much authenticity as it does deception, which is Linklater’s way of mirroring his form with the movie’s thematic content. Much of the movie comes across as an Errol Morris tribute.
Bernie is a very kind spirit to the people of Carthage, but also endlessly eccentric. That he committed the murder isn’t up for debate. The script, which Linklater co-wrote with Skip Hollandsworth, plums the particularities of this region of east Texas in the interviews and then uses Black’s performance to illustrate Bernie in the larger context. He is flamboyant and effeminate, but is he gay? He spent a lot of time with the wealthy widow Marjorie (MacLaine), but were they intimate?
These townspeople, fictional, real or somewhere in between, come off mostly as gossipers who sympathized with Bernie because he was nice. It becomes tedious at times, mostly because the fictional actors appear to be having way more fun. The trial, preceded over by District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), had to have a change of venue not because the town had convicted the murderer, but because they had already equited him.
Bernie used Marjorie’s vast wealth to help build the town up. The movie begins with a cold open of him addressing a classroom of potential morticians on how to groom a body for viewing. His meticulous attention to the corpse is eerie and charming, and distorts our view of him for the rest of the movie. All of the sudden, he seems capable of murder.Perspective ultimately becomes Linklater’s theme in the movie. Carthage is recreated with the use of small town Texas browns and tans, and the D.A. and much of the townspeople follow suit. Bernie and Marjorie of course stick out like sore thumbs in their colorful, “cultured” wardrobe. Marjorie is an outsider who never tried to break in, Bernie the outcast who desperately must. Much of the movie is darkly comical, but Linklater walks the fine line of character and satire. Bernie isn’t about making Texans look stupid. It recreates a fascinating and weird story of murder and paints an oddly specific sociological picture of small town life that helps us understand it. It may be summed up best by McConaughey’s character, who says “All I need to get a conviction is 50 miles.” When Bernie is removed from his circle of friends to a completely different town for the trial, we in the audience are also meant to feel shock at just how normal a killer can be. Grade: B