There are times when it just works. There are times when the soufflÃ© rises just right. Sometimes itâ€™s explainable, but if weâ€™re being honest, itâ€™s best when it happens miraculously. Thatâ€™s how I felt when I watched â€œBernie.â€ Itâ€™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 whoâ€™s story is so bizarre it must be based on a true story. Itâ€™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 heâ€™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 itâ€™s very easy to get this kind of thing wrong. Just ask the writers and creators of the excellent TV show â€œDexterâ€ 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. Heâ€™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 husbandâ€™s funeral. Some residents think he may be gay. Others think he has a thing for older women. The majority just think heâ€™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 townâ€™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 Marjorieâ€™s true nature comes to the surface, and she starts controlling Bernieâ€™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 Marjorieâ€™s gun – which he refers to as the â€œpossum gunâ€ – and shoots her four times in the back. We see Bernieâ€™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 â€œnice guyâ€ we support him through everything, even though we do remain a little suspicious of him. Or perhaps itâ€™s just cynicism. We wait for Bernie to be revealed as a nut case, when all the time he was just a â€œnice guyâ€ 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 heâ€™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 Bernieâ€™s life with documentary style interviews, some of which involve actual residents from Cathage, Texas. Itâ€™s a small town with a population of roughly 7,000, so as youâ€™d expect, the majority of people there know each other. Every now and then – especially when talking about Bernieâ€™s sexual orientation – the intervieweeâ€™s use colloquialisms that add a humorous touch of realism.
Linklaterâ€™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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