"Bernie," a quirky tragi-comedy starring Jack Black as a meticulous mortician, a faithful Methodist, a good neighbor and an improbable murderer, is a true-life Texas tale so perfectly told it seems more like eavesdropping than moviegoing.
This is writer-director Richard Linklater at his wry, whimsical best, and considering he was the filmmaker behind 1993's "Dazed and Confused," that makes the movie something of a milestone. Always an articulate voice for closely observed stories of ordinary lives and random encounters, the filmmaker has truly come home in"Bernie." His East Texas roots, where the movie unfolds, can be felt in every scene of this love letter to the ways and wiles of small-town gossips with a juicy story to spread about one of their own.
Linklater, in a sense, is just joining the conversation. He uses a documentary style of interviews intercut with more traditional narrative scenes to piece together how the sweet-faced Bernie Tiede ended up in prison for shooting the richest, sourest widow in Carthage, Texas, and hiding her body in the freezer — "right with the frozen corn and pot pies," as her granddaughter would testify — where it went undiscovered for almost a year.
The film opens with Bernie (Black) doing what he did best: playing to an audience. He's walking a class of mortuary students through his secrets for perfectly prepping the deceased. Black telegraphs almost everything essential to know about Bernie in that scene — that he's patient, precise, cares about the deceased, cares more about making sure everything is just right and knows how to work a crowd.
From there, the story picks up in Carthage long after Bernie has been incarcerated, with the town folk trying to explain what happened — and why he shouldn't be serving time even if he did kill Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The script, which Linklater wrote with Skip Hollandsworth, whose Texas Monthly piece about Bernie Tiede first caught the filmmaker's eye in 1998, is masterful in capturing the rich, salty flavor of east Texas.
Much of the dialogue is handed to the many locals (actors and nonprofessionals) used in the film, and the script's homespun language captures the way the simplest remark can turn into a stinging, or sardonic, indictment depending on the subject at hand. The casting choices are unerring, making it virtually impossible to tell the actors from the ordinary folks. It gives "Bernie" a kind of authenticity that works with the stripped-down look of the film. There is also an intimacy, with Linklater relying on lots of close-ups and giving cinematographer Dick Pope ("The Illusionist") time to explore those faces.
The film is one man's story, but it is also a sly study of human nature when it comes to assessing what is good and bad in people. Bernie was not home-grown but adopted by Carthage not long after he was hired as an assistant director at the funeral home. He was something of a bon vivant, quickly ingratiating himself with the community, singing in the church choir, faithfully visiting widows after handling their husbands' funerals. That Bernie was such a natural performer allows Black a chance to showcase his musical chops, and with a religious fervor that makes the actor's heavy-metal turn in 2003's "The School of Rock," another Linklater collaboration, seem like child's play.
Since Bernie confesses, the film's central conflict is about his punishment rather than his guilt. What is uncontested is that Mrs. Nugent and the town didn't get along, and there is acid on her neighbors' tongues as they talk about her and try to explain why she and Bernie became so close. Though he accompanied her on trips abroad and took care of her financial affairs, no one seems to believe it was about the money. That Bernie was "light in his loafers," as one man puts it, is about all anyone can come up to explain why the young man and the old widow became so close. MacLaine drapes an irritating arrogance around her character like a shroud, making it absolutely believable why many in Carthage didn't exactly consider her killing to be a crime.
There is a trial, and it's a stage for grandstanding Dist. Atty. Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). The actor wears the role of good ole boy-political opportunist as comfortably as the boots and Stetson. But most of the film is about how Bernie had charmed the town before the murder messed things up. Given Bernie's natural flamboyance and Black's tendency for excess, it is a testament to the actor's talent that he turns in such a finely wrought, restrained performance. There is a sense of affection and respect for the people and the predicament in every move Black makes. Bernie, Danny Buck, Mrs. Nugent and the rest are most certainly characters, but in Linklater's hands, they are never caricatures.