There are times when it just works. There are times when the soufflé rises just right. Sometimes it’s explainable, but if we’re being honest, it’s best when it happens miraculously. That’s how I felt when I watched “Bernie.” It’s difficult to describe – as a complete work – what it is that makes it such a triumph. It just is. Director Richard Linklater combines pitch black humour with a sweet and gentle lead character who’s story is so bizarre it must be based on a true story. It’s enough to make the Coen Brothers smile.
You have to wonder if, when Richard Linklater read an article by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly about a kind hearted man driven to murder, he knew that he’d struck gold. A story about a man so well liked by a small community in Texas that his murder trial had to be moved 50 miles away, because the local jury would almost certainly let him off. Obviously an intriguing character if ever there was one, and one that certainly deserves a movie, but it’s very easy to get this kind of thing wrong. Just ask the writers and creators of the excellent TV show “Dexter” how much controversy they created with their sympathetic serial killer who only kills bad people.
From our perspective, Bernie (Jack Black) kills a bad person too. He arrives in the small town of Carthage, Texas looking to take a job as a mortician. He’s an expert in preparing the dead, to the extent that some of them look better than when they were alive. He sings in church, performs in the local theatre, and makes an effort to check on the local widows for a few weeks after their husband’s funeral. Some residents think he may be gay. Others think he has a thing for older women. The majority just think he’s a very nice man.
Then Bernie meets Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy old widow who seems to delight in making the people around her miserable. When her grandchildren abandon her when she becomes totally unbearable, it confirms her world view that everyone hates her. Then Bernie arrives at her house bearing gifts, and the two of them soon spark up a friendship. They go away on holidays together, and Marjorie goes to see Bernie perform in his theatre productions. Again, the town’s people start to gossip, and a rumour starts that they are having an affair. It feels like we know more about Bernie than they do though, and we can safely assume he was probably celibate.
Eventually Marjorie’s true nature comes to the surface, and she starts controlling Bernie’s life and ordering him around. When he attempts to leave, she accuses him of hating her like everyone else. Life becomes so unbearable for him that he eventually takes Marjorie’s gun – which he refers to as the “possum gun” – and shoots her four times in the back. We see Bernie’s horrified reaction, and we feel sympathy for him. This is the point when the film really takes flight.
Because Bernie is an all round “nice guy” we support him through everything, even though we do remain a little suspicious of him. Or perhaps it’s just cynicism. We wait for Bernie to be revealed as a nut case, when all the time he was just a “nice guy” pushed to extremes. Richard Linklater at no point attempts to pass any form of moral judgement; he just allows Bernie to be Bernie. The only person we really come across who doubts him is the local District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) who thinks he’s Columbo when he seems to have more in common with Clouseau.
Jack Black proves to be rather inspired casting. He avoids drifting into his usual comedy wackiness, and creates a satirical performance with considerable substance. Linklater intercuts scenes from Bernie’s life with documentary style interviews, some of which involve actual residents from Cathage, Texas. It’s a small town with a population of roughly 7,000, so as you’d expect, the majority of people there know each other. Every now and then – especially when talking about Bernie’s sexual orientation – the interviewee’s use colloquialisms that add a humorous touch of realism.
Linklater’s script – co-written with Skip Hollandsworth – brings out a lot of droll dark comedy from a story that could have easily been misjudged in the wrong hands. But Linklater keeps everything under control, and delicately allows the story to tell itself. Throw in Jack Black giving one of the best performances of his career, and you have a real triumph. The content is well judged and the tone fits perfectly. It just works.
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