A blurred amalgam between documentary, fiction and re-enactment, indie-icon Richard Linklater’s Bernie subverts the tropes of crime drama and black comedy to amplify the transcendent straight-faced hilarity of Jack Black’s performance.
Set in Carthage, Texas, Black plays the town’s beloved, effeminate mortician’s assistant Bernie (Jack Black). Adored by all for his generosity and benevolence, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the town’s cantankerous and extremely wealthy widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine). With round-the-world holidays, fancy meals and pampered salon sessions, their peculiar relationship turns even more absurd when Marjorie grows extremely and psychotically possessive, pushing the good-natured Bernie into doing the unthinkable. What follows is a fascinating, bizarre and agonisingly funny reaction to a seemingly heinous act.
Bernie is ostensibly a stranger than fiction tale about forgiveness. When the community’s most generous, courteous, sincere, and valuable member does something wrong, how willing is everyone to forgive and forget the crime and debunk their moral compass?
Pairing up for the first time since 2003 smash hit comedy School of Rock, Linklater has managed to unfurl a career-defining performance from Jack Black in the titular role. There’s little of the mania that Black churns out on the big screen; he’s barely even playing for laughs. Instead what emerges is a perfectly poised exploration of a mysterious character of ambiguous motivation. There’s a ‘straight-faced’ sincerity that guises Bernie’s overt showmanship to the conservative town’s people that made him excruciatingly funny. Bernie certainly stands out as an oddity and yet Black convinces the audience the Bernie was able to seduce the locals despite being so relatively unusual.
The secondary performances come close to stealing Black’s thunder, with Shirley MacLaine perfectly cast as the fiery and contemptible widow Marjorie Nugent. Then there’s regular Linklater actor/man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey, stealing scenes as the narcissistic district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, a lone figure trying to pursue justice in the face of overbearing community sentiment on Bernie’s side. Matthew McConaughey steals scenes as the town’s D.A Danny Buck – the logical and lone moral barometer in a town committed to Bernie.
Best of all, Linklater brings some veridicality to the proceedings by casting real-life inhabitants of Carthage to give frank accounts on the trial and local legend Bernie. The commentary works partly like a expressionistic Greek Chorus, but also as would-be footage from a mockumentary. Combined with the scripted drama, the result is an unconventional exercise in factual fiction that is as informative as it is entertaining.
Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth – who brought this exceptional tale to public attention with a hysteric newspaper article back in the nineties – never attempt to demystify Bernie’s fatal slip-up and question it’s premeditation. Instead, they present a character who desperately craved love and understanding in his community. If anything, it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Although it’s lack of authoritative voice may eventually become it’s narrative downfall, Bernie is a gripping and often hilarious black satire on an extraordinary American crime case.
Criminally, Bernie is still waiting to be snatched up for general cinema release. It’s available on Region 1 DVD in the states and further afield. Pick it up, wherever you can.