Bernie features a series of talking head interviews with the citizens of Carthage, Texas that are so funny, folksy, and fully-realised I was certain they were fictional. After all, reality is rarely a convincing representation of itself. But no, Richard Linklater mixes documentary with recreation in this bizarre true story, mercifully avoiding caricature and farce despite the subject seemingly screaming for it. It reminded me of When Harry Met Sally, which continually interrupted itself with those wonderfully genuine interstitials of old married couples reflecting on their meeting. Bernie, however, concerns much darker matters.
Jack Black stars as real-life local legend Bernie Tiede; the sweet, sensitive, and much-loved mortician of this tiny Texan town. Though he gained his notoriety for a fairly unsavoury crime, Bernie’s acquaintances report to the camera that he was already a celebrity amongst them for his good deeds alone. Among his saintly duties was comforting the DLOLs (Dear Little Old Ladies), and widower Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) fell into this category. She was a bitter old millionaire whom the residents of Carthage no longer had any time for. Bernie worked hard to melt the ice queen, and ultimately broke through her cruel veneer. Once in, there was no escape for the eager-to-please funeral director. Unable to tell her ‘no,’ he soon found himself her personal assistant/slave. Then, he found a rifle in his hand, and Marjorie lying dead on the garage floor.
There are a number of elements that keep this from being a straight-forward crime of passion, such as the fact Bernie was set to inherit Marjorie’s millions ahead of her estranged children, the rumours of their romance despite his assumed homosexuality, and how he managed to fool everyone into thinking she was still alive for a further nine months before finally getting caught out (the titular comparison with Weekend at Bernie’s is both unfortunate and hilarious). Black gives one of the best performances of his career, eschewing both snark and over-enthusiasm to make Bernie seem lovable, lonely, regretful, and perhaps just a little devious. He’s marvellously ambiguous yet totally sympathetic, much like the movie Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth have built around him.
Black is ably supported by MacLaine, who does well to not veer into histrionics too frequently considering the shrieking, shrew-like nature of her character. Matthew McConaughey damn near steals the show (as he seems to be frequently doing these days) in the second half of the picture as headline-grabbing District Attorney Danny Buck; so slick and desperate for publicity, but unwilling to be swayed by all the citizens who encourage him to give little ol’ Bernie an easy time on the stand. But what makes this such a special treat is the aforementioned fusion of styles. A collage of actors and real Carthaginians (occasionally speaking from a script) pass judgement or absolve Tiede of his crimes without ever really knowing the whole truth. We’re placed in a similar position; asked to forgive a man guilty of murder merely for being overwhelmingly cordial, or condemn one of the rare souls on this Earth that is unendingly nice. Can you be a good person, and a killer? Bernie is an odd little gem, equal parts funny and tragic, and as modest as its setting.
Bernie arrives in Australian cinemas August 16, 2012.